Be Safe on Ride to Work Day

By Christopher Hart

Today, June 20, is Ride to Work Day for motorcyclists. This is the day that motorcycle riders across the country showcase the many benefits and pleasures of commuting on motorcyclists. On the Ride to Work website there’s a video that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, member of the Congressional Motorcycle Safety Caucus, made several years ago about Ride to Work day.  A biker, she talks about the fuel efficiency of motorcycles, the importance of being aware of vehicles on the road, and she says that motorcyclists should wear “proper motorcycle-specific safety gear.” That gear includes DOT-compliant helmets, which, as I have said before, and will say again:  Save lives.

Enjoy your commute and be sure to enjoy it safely with a helmet.

Christopher A. Hart was sworn in as a Member of the NTSB on August 12, 2009 and designated by the President for a two-year term as Vice Chairman of the Board on August 18. Member Hart joined the Board after a long career in transportation safety, including a previous term as a Member of the NTSB.

Driving into a Safer Future

By Debbie Hersman

Google autonomous car software
Google is using advanced technologies to test a self-driving vehicle

Last week, I visited Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., to see Google’s self-driving car. This is one of those things where you really do have to see it to believe it.

The autonomous car sees much more than the driver can — thanks to 360-degree perception (no more blind spots!). Better still, the automated algorithmic driver never gets sleepy, distracted, or drunk.

Google is working on this project to make driving safer, more efficient, and more pleasurable. I saw for myself as the car negotiated Bayshore Freeway — how it was able to avoid other vehicles, how it slowed and sped up with the flow of traffic, and how, when necessary, it turned control of the vehicle to the human driver. It was quite amazing.

As Google’s Distinguished Software Engineer Sebastian Thrun has said, “While this project is very much in the experimental stage, it provides a glimpse of what transportation might look like in the future thanks to advanced computer science.”

Earlier this week, however, I saw what transportation can look like today at the 22nd Enhanced Safety of Vehicles Conference.  I appreciated NHTSA Administrator Strickland’s invitation to talk about the NTSB’s recommendations regarding how technology can improve safety in commercial vehicles.  The NTSB has investigated a number of fatal crashes involving buses and heavy trucks that could have been prevented with the use of forward-collision warning systems or electronic stability control.

While NHTSA and the automobile manufacturers have done a great deal to improve safety in our personal vehicles, it is sad, but true, that my six-year-old mini-van has more safety technology than most commercial vehicles on our roads today. These are safety improvements that are currently available.

I will continue watching Google to see what is possible in the car of tomorrow, but we do not have to wait for the self-driving car to save lives on our roads. We can do that now by moving forward with off-the-shelf technology in the largest and heaviest vehicles on the road.

Good Piloting for GA Safety

Pilatus PC-12
Pilatus PC-12

By Earl Weener

Last Friday, I gave a presentation at the Pilatus Owners and Pilots Association (POPA), the organization, or “type club,” for people who fly Pilatus airplanes. Pilatus is a leading manufacturer of single-engine turboprop aircraft, notably the PC-12.

My talk focused on weather, in particular icing.  NTSB investigators see proof again and again that  flying in icing conditions can be deadly.  Different aircraft are equipped with different ways to combat inflight icing, but there is one defense that applies to all pilots of all aircraft, whether GA or commercial: training.  Pilots should be able to detect changes in performance of their aircraft as icing develops.  Pilots should hand-fly the airplane frequently to have a continuous understanding of what the icing is doing to the airplane and to avoid having the autopilot mask controllability degredation.  They should know how to monitor and maintain appropriate icing speeds.  They should train for stalls and approach to stalls with and without ice protections systems and be aware that the airplane with ice on the wings and tail can stall at angles that are as little as half those of a clean airplane.  This can be a very nasty surprise to find oneself in a fully developed stall.  Preparation and training are key to safe flight, particularly in icing conditions.

Which brings me to my second point. Membership and participation in type clubs can be extremely valuable for pilots in maintaining their knowledge and skills in flying.  Many type clubs host discussion forums, publish magazines, and keep libraries of technical information. Many clubs are great about keeping members informed about service issues and can be a resource for all kinds of information about restoring, maintaining, and operating specific types of aircraft.

No matter what type of aircraft you own, operate, or maintain, chances are there is a type club for you. Check it out. I belong to a type club for pilots of Bonanza airplanes.  Maybe I’ll see you at an upcoming meeting. Here’s a link to a talk I gave last year at the American Bonanza Society:

Honorable Earl F. WeenerEarl F. Weener, Ph.D., took the oath of office as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on June 30, 2010. Dr. Weener is a licensed pilot and flight instructor who has dedicated his entire career to the field of aviation safety.

A Look at Transportation’s Bright Future

By Tom Zoeller

early model flying car
Yes, we'll be there to investigate a flying car crash, too

This week, I chaperoned my son’s fifth grade class to the National Building Museum.  One of the exhibits focuses on the World’s Fairs from the 1930s.  It was pretty entertaining to step back more than 75 years and see how people then viewed the future, especially transportation.  We still are far away from Jetsons’ flying cars, but I am pretty confident that we have some great minds working to improve things. 

Earlier in the week, I had the opportunity to represent the NTSB in speaking to the Eno Transportation Foundation. The foundation’s mission is to “seek continuous improvement in transportation and its public and private leadership in order to increase the system’s mobility, safety and sustainability.”  The foundation sponsors graduate students in transportation policy and hosts visits to Washington, D.C. where the students are able to interact with a host of transportation interests — on Capitol Hill, in the Executive Branch, various associations, and other non-governmental entities. 

In speaking about the NTSB’s top safety issues, I was impressed by the thoughtful and insightful questions the graduate students posed to me and my fellow panelist from the DOT’s Federal Highway Administration. I was pleased by their focus on safety.  For one, they were appalled to learn that some states have repealed their motorcycle helmet laws!  It was clear that the next generation of transportation leaders is concerned about improving the safety of all our transportation modes, as well as creating a vibrant system that will meet the demands of the 21st century. 

Yes, there are some bright minds that will soon be taking the reins in transportation planning and policy.  We may still have to wait 75 years before we get our own personal flying car, but I’m confident that if this group of young leaders is any indication, our future will be in very good hands.

Tom Zoeller is Executive Officer of the NTSB.

Improving Pipeline Safety

By Debbie Hersman

This morning, NTSB Board Member Mark Rosekind and I visited the neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif., where a natural gas pipeline ruptured on Sept. 9, 2010.  The released natural gas ignited and resulted in a massive fire. Eight people died, ten more were injured, and 38 homes were destroyed.

Chairman Hersman (in red), Congresswoman Speier (in blue) and Member Rosekind (second from right) visit the accident site.

Our team is working hard to complete the investigation and present their final report at a board meeting prior to the one-year anniversary of the accident.  Because thorough investigations of major accidents like the one in San Bruno can take a year or more to accomplish, the NTSB does not always wait until it completes investigations to issue safety recommendations.  In fact, last January, we issued urgent safety recommendations to ensure that the records, surveys, and documents for all pipeline systems accurately reflect the infrastructure.  Further, we issued recommendations addressing the need for hydrostatic testing to detemine safe operating pressures on lines without accurate records.

Today, the NTSB is issuing three additional safety recommendations — two to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and one to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E).  These new recommendations focus on informing emergency response agencies about pipeline locations and important operating information in advance and notifying emergency responders promptly when a leak is detected.  We heard loudly and clearly at our March fact-finding hearing that many local officials in San Bruno did not know that transmission lines ran through the middle of neighborhoods.

Implementing these recommendations will help assure a timelier and more appropriate response to accidents in the future.

This visit to San Bruno has been a poignant reminder that our role — and our commitment — at the NTSB is to do everything we can to make sure a tragedy like this one, and the devastating losses it caused, never happens again.