By Debbie Hersman
At the NTSB, we don’t have the power to pass laws, regulations or issue fines. Our charge is to thoroughly investigate accidents, analyze trends and make our best recommendations on how to make transportation safer.
It is a testament to the great work of the men and women of the NTSB that Congress addressed so many of our safety recommendations in its latest transportation law.
Based on our investigation of several accidents involving the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority as well as a number of accidents around the country where local oversight was lacking, the NTSB recommended increased federal oversight of rail transit following the 2009 collision near Fort Totten. Senator Mikulski and many in the Washington-area delegation made this a priority following several fatal accidents on Metro and at the DOT, Administrator Rogoff of the Federal Transit Administration and Secretary LaHood, have embraced this safety oversight. The new law improves federal oversight of rail transit systems and creates greater accountability among state safety oversight entities.
Bus occupant safety, which is on our “Most Wanted List” and includes a number of long-standing NTSB recommendations, received a boost in the new transportation law. Senator Hutchison worked for many years with her colleagues to advocate for better bus occupant protection through better crashworthiness, safety monitoring standards, and fire suppression measures. The law also improves the safety-fitness rating system of motorcoaches and additional authority for DOT to combat the efforts of poor carriers who try to escape scrutiny by “reincarnating” themselves under new names. Senator Brown and Congressman Lewis deserve credit for their work on bus safety.
Addressing human fatigue has been a perennial issue on our “Most Wanted List.” For over 30 years, the Board has identified fatigue as the primary cause of numerous fatal highway accidents involving large trucks. The law includes the requirement for electronic on-board recorders to be installed on commercial motor vehicles to monitor drivers’ hours of service. This requirement, while controversial and heavily debated, is the only way to really level the playing field when it comes to driver compliance with the law – we routinely see two sets of log books or drivers exceeding legal limits in our investigations. Adoption of this provision will save lives and make our highways safer.
Other NTSB “Most Wanted List” issue areas, teen driver safety, addressing alcohol-impaired driving and motorcycle safety were also addressed in the law. To improve teen driver safety, grants will be provided to states implementing graduated licensing programs and efforts aimed at increasing teen seatbelt use, reducing distracted driving and curbing underage drinking. To help fight alcohol-impaired driving, the law specifies minimum penalties for repeat offenders and authorizes NHTSA to conduct research on in vehicle alcohol-detection technology. The law also provides motorcycle safety grants focused on improving motorcycle training and reducing fatalities.
The law includes many of our recommendations and important changes which, if implemented, will improve safety. Yet, with more than 30,000 fatalities a year, we know there is much more work to be done. At the NTSB, our investigators and analysts will continue evaluating accidents so we can learn important lessons to constantly improve the safety of our roadways and help inform the policymakers that are working to prevent future accidents.