The Importance of Communication

By Robert L. Sumwalt

Communication is key during an investigation
Communication is key during an investigation.

This week, I had the privilege of moderating a panel of international aviation safety professionals at ISASI’s annual meeting in Baltimore. The subject was the internal and external challenges facing accident investigators between the on-scene phase and the final report.

The panelists touched upon the tension between the public’s continual hunger for information in the modern era of the 24-hour news cycle, and the critical need for confidentiality and uninhibited fact-gathering by the investigative team. Darren Straker, of the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority, said that investigators must be particularly mindful of the risks, as well as the rewards, of social media. At a time when mobile-phone use proliferates and communication of photos and video is nearly instantaneous, he said accident investigation agencies must be even more careful that the information they share with the media and the public is accurate.

Jens Friedemann, of the German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation, said robust internal communication among the parties to the investigation is critical, especially during the formation of the factual reports which form the foundation for the final report, as well as its findings and recommendations. At the NTSB, as we increasingly participate in international accident investigations, such communication – across continents, and across the world – becomes even more critical.

One valuable comment came from Captain Paddy Judge, of the Irish Air Accident Investigation Unit. He said that when an investigative agency, especially a small one with limited resources, encounters a problem during an investigation, “Pick up the phone.” The odds are high that another ISASI member agency has previously encountered the same issue, and can bring their own expertise to bear.

The conversation arising from the panelists’ discussion was fascinating, and one that I am sure will continue well beyond the end of this year’s ISASI meeting. I want to extend my thanks to all of the panelists for their participation and their insights.


Robert L. Sumwalt was sworn in as the 37th Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on August 21, 2006. He is a frequent contributor to the NTSB blog.

A Pilot’s Story

By Debbie Hersman

At the NTSB we investigate more than 1,400 accidents a year, learning not only what happened but why. In that way, lessons can be learned that can prevent future accidents. That’s our job.

What Russ Jeter has done is something unexpected. In his short documentary, “No Greater Burden,” Russ shares the story of his accident and his devastating personal loss. It is more than a story about how an experienced pilot makes a mistake that leads to a crash; it’s his own personal investigation into how and why the mistake was made and how accidents are more than simply forgetting to flip a switch.

He shares his story with brutal honesty in an effort to educate his fellow pilots.

The documentary, produced by AOPA’s Air Safety Institute, is on the AOPA Foundation’s website and I urge every pilot, and everyone interested in safety, to watch Russ’ story.

Putting Attention Back in the Driver’s Seat

www.distraction.govBy Debbie Hersman

Highway fatalities are still going up and the traffic safety community is working hard to understand why. But, one of the clear things that we can do to save lives is eliminate distractions. And, yes, there’s far more to distraction than sending a text or placing a cellphone call. But it’s those electronic distractions — like texting and calling — that take the driver’s eyes and attention away from the road that can be especially risky and result in tragic endings.

We learned a lot about the heightened risk from not paying attention to the driving task at the “Attentive Driving: Countermeasures for Distraction” forum we held in March. Leading experts talked about the myriad of distractions and ways to mitigate the risks. We discussed one of the biggest challenges, which is moving drivers and societal norms to foster attentive driving. Panelist Dr. Donald L. Fisher of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said a clear way to start changing norms and behavior is through laws.

This is why I was so encouraged this week when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it will issue grants to states that have enacted laws banning distracted driving in fiscal year 2013. In order to qualify for a grant a state must have a comprehensive primary law against distracted driving or a primary law prohibiting texting while driving. This is a win-win approach to improving traffic safety.

Funding from the grants is available to the 35 states that currently enforce primary texting-while-driving bans. That means a law enforcement officer can stop the driver solely for texting while driving. The balance of the grant money is available to states that have much stricter bans. Hopefully, the availability of additional funds will encourage states to strengthen their laws during their 2013 legislative sessions

I look forward to the day when there are full bans of the use of personal electronic devices while driving. In the meantime, I’ll continue to put my communications devices in the trunk. That’s how I resist the temptation to make that one quick call.

Improving Skills Through Training

By Earl Weener

On August 22, I am looking forward to NBAA’s Safety Committee’s Business Aviation Pilot Training Symposium, a one day event focussed on improving pilot training for the business aviation sector. The discussion will include ideas on how business-aviation pilot training substantially benefits from adapting training philosophies from other segments of the industry, such as the Advanced Qualification Program.

The symposium will highlight efforts already completed by NBAA’s Safety Committee, and include planning tools and guidelines to assist the business aviation community in advancing their own training programs.

I will contribute to the event with a discussion on general aviation safety, focussing on several of the all-too-typical fatal business flying accidents. Each year, hundreds of people are killed in general aviation, and thousands more are injured. However, these statistics do not need to remain static, as the causes of these accidents are often repeated scenarios of previous accidents and can be addressed through training.

I hope you are able to join me at this free event hosted at the NTSB Conference Center. Bottom line: every pilot can improve his or her skills through training.

High Visibility Enforcement: Law enforcement officers target drunk drivers

By Debbie Hersman

Even after decades of fighting against the deadly decision to drink and drive, the fight to eliminate impaired driving is far from over. A critical component to this fight is the anti-drunk driving campaign “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over,” coordinated by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Between August 17 and September 3, more than 10,000 police departments across the country will contribute to this campaign’s success. And, in a sentiment shared by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, this is a sign to those who still choose to drink and drive that they will be caught, and they will be held accountable.

Tackling the problem of impaired driving requires a systems approach; law enforcement is the first step. These high-visibility enforcement campaigns with their enhanced police presence and extensive media coverage are needed to create general deterrence – that is, convincing drivers not to get behind the wheel after drinking in the first place. And without the arrests made by law enforcement officers, imposing other countermeasures such as ignition interlocks and treatment won’t be effective.

A newly released Traffic Safety Fact Sheet by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) confirms that we have more work to do. In 2010, at least 70% of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities involved at least one driver with a BAC of 0.15 percent or higher. This is almost twice the legal limit. Even more alarming, the most frequently recorded BAC in fatal crashes was 0.18 percent. These are not just unfortunate accidents; these are flagrant violations of the law. And 10,228 people have paid the price. That’s why the NTSB includes Addressing Alcohol-Impaired Driving on its Most Wanted List.

And it’s exactly why we support the “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaign. If we are to reach zero crashes, injuries, and deaths from impaired driving, these high-visibility enforcement campaigns are necessary. We haven’t won the battle yet, but thanks to the dedicated law enforcement officers participating in this year’s campaign, we are moving one step closer.

AT &T scores with anti-texting and driving campaign

By Chairman Hersman

During coverage of the 2012 Olympics, AT&T launched a bold public service campaign aimed at reducing distracted driving. The powerful ads, “TXTING & DRIVNG… IT CAN WAIT”, were aired during peak coverage of the games. And the message resonated with people. The powerful ads were the subject of great discussion on blogs, websites, Facebook and Twitter – exactly the response one seeks when launching a public service campaign – create a dialog.

I’m glad that AT&T has engaged in the debate. Well done!

At the NTSB, our charge is to investigate accidents, learn the cause and recommend changes to prevent them from occurring again. The one constant we see: crashes happen in the blink of an eye. And for the last decade, we have investigated deadly accidents involving distracted drivers and operators, across all modes of transportation. We’ve seen lives lost. In the blink of an eye. In the typing of a text. In the push of a send button.

The NTSB identified distraction due to text messaging as the cause of a commuter train engineer running a red signal near Chatsworth, California, on September 12, 2008. The result: a head-on collision with a freight train. Twenty-five people died and dozens were injured. The engineer, who had a history of using his cell phone for personal communications while on duty, sent and received 250 text messages during the three days leading up to the accident.

In another accident the NTSB investigated, the driver of a tractor-trailer truck made 97 calls and received 26 more during the 24 hours preceding the accident. In the half hour prior to the crash, the driver spent 14 minutes—nearly half his time—on the phone. Ten people died that day after the truck crossed the median and crashed into a passenger van.

Last December, after completing an investigation into a multi-vehicle highway accident in Gray Summit, Mo., where a pickup driver, who had been texting, slammed into the back of a truck and set off a series of collisions that killed two people, the NTSB issued its strongest recommendation yet.

The NTSB called for the 50 states and the District of Columbia to ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices for all drivers. A bold, yet necessary recommendation that if implemented, will curb the carnage of distraction.

Yet even with company policies, widespread public education campaigns, and, in some places, laws to minimize distractions like texting bans or cell phone use, many people continue to think, “I’ll make this quick call” or “I’ll send a brief text message.”

This behavior is unsafe and unacceptable. It is time to change public tolerance for distracted operations, and elevate society’s disapproval for drivers who use devices while behind the wheel.

Keeping an Eye on Train Crews

By Earl F. Weener

Three weeks ago, I accompanied our experienced National Transportation Safety Board investigators to Columbus, Ohio, where they launched to a freight train derailment and subsequent fire. The train was equipped with a data recorder that enabled our investigators to quickly determine the speed, immediately debunking rumors and speculations.

In June, a train collision in rural Oklahoma posed a challenge because the recorders onboard were destroyed. As more freight and commuter trains travel through our Nation’s rail system, it is important to have not just reliable data recorders, but also video event recorders (VER) that not only record what the crew is seeing but also what the crew is doing before and during the accident. The NTSB has issued a safety recommendation to the Federal Railroad Administration to mandate inward and outward facing VERs on all locomotives.

Following the 2008 Chatsworth train collision in Southern California, Metrolink became the first railroad in the nation to install inward-facing cameras on all their locomotives in addition to the outward facing cameras already in place. Metrolink cited the move as being a part of a “multilayered safety program.” The NTSB applauds agencies and companies that are proactive in instituting our recommendations. After many accidents, VERs have proven to be invaluable tool for our investigators. These cameras are eyes to our investigators as well as the supervisors who are supposed to be monitoring the crew’s performance for potential safety violations.

Union Pacific stated in 2008 that they were on their way to installing outward facing cameras on more than 90 percent of their locomotives. While this is a step in the right direction, I want to stress that inward facing cameras serve a dual purpose that will enhance safety for both train riders and crews. The Chatsworth accident illustrated that engineers are prone to distraction, just like drivers on our highways. The engineer in the accident was found to be texting minutes prior the accident occurred. In order to stop the cycle of risky behavior, a method of accountability is needed. Inward facing cameras are the answer.

Our railroad system serves as an economic lifeline to both commerce and commuters. Keeping our locomotives engineers alert while operating heavy trains is imperative for railroad safety. We cannot let the mistakes of the past continue by being stubborn and complacent on VERs.


Earl F. Weener, Ph.D., took the oath of office as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on June 30, 2010.

Member Weener is a licensed pilot who has dedicated his entire career to the field of aviation safety.