Learning, Leading and Legacy

flight 3407By Debbie Hersman

It’s been four years to the day since Colgan Air flight 3407 crashed short of the Buffalo airport runway killing all 49 people on board and one person on the ground. Out of that investigation and through the tireless efforts of the family members and loved ones of those who lost their lives, air travel is safer today.

Our investigation revealed the need for improvements in a number of key aviation safety areas, including pilot professionalism, human fatigue, remedial training, pilot training records and FAA oversight. Despite their grief, I witnessed a group of families that not only wanted the industry to learn from this tragedy, but decided to lead. They became ardent and articulate advocates for real and substantial improvements to aviation safety. As a result of their tireless leadership, Congress passed the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010.

Four years after the crash near Buffalo, Wielinski home memorial on Long street
some 3 billion people have traveled safely on the U.S. airlines. That is a powerful testimony to learning and leading – from a terrible tragedy and creating a lasting legacy to improve airline safety. However, a great deal of work remains – 22 of 25 NTSB recommendations issued as a result of the Colgan accident have yet to be completed.

Today also marks the birthday of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. While Lincoln was remembered for overcoming many challenges, he also knew that public will was essential for change. He said, “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” Learning about the accident and leading the public sentiment – that will be the legacy of the loved ones of Colgan 3407.

Twenty-First Century Transportation Needs Twenty-First Century Fire Safety

Chevy Volt Lithium Battery Pack Fire 2011
Chevy Volt Lithium Battery Pack Fire 2011

By Mark Rosekind

Lithium-ion batteries, and any potential fire hazards they present, are not just relegated to the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. At this week’s Washington Auto Show in the nation’s capital, one of the largest gatherings of automobile manufacturers in the country, car makers from the United States and abroad are showcasing the latest in electric vehicle technology – a technology that depends upon safe, efficient lithium-ion batteries. Policy-makers, like those at the U.S. Department of Energy, used the show to outline aggressive plans to increase the production of electric vehicles and make them more widely available to American consumers as, “…an essential part” of the Obama Administration’s comprehensive approach to reducing fossil fuel dependence.

This year’s NTSB “Most wanted List” (http://www.ntsb.gov/safety/mwl.html) includes fire safety and as the Board Member responsible for advancing the agency’s advocacy goals on this issue, car shows like this and the recent North American International Auto Show that I attended in Detroit offer valuable opportunities to learn more about what the industry is doing to ensure that electric vehicles are safe from battery-related fires.

Fires can be dangerous in any situation and NTSB investigations have revealed shortcomings in how transportation modes address fire safety. When fires are detected and addressed early, the chances of surviving, reducing injury, and minimizing damage greatly increase. When new technologies emerge, such as those in electric cars, the NTSB wants to ensure they are as safe as possible.

Lithium-ion batteries hold a tremendous amount of promise to increase the efficiency of all kinds of vehicles. They have a longer life than traditional batteries, offer more energy storage, and weigh less. But these advantages are not risk-free as we have seen with the Dreamliner’s recent problems, as well as some noteworthy troubles with electric cars. In June of 2011, the NTSB investigated a fire involving a Chevy Volt’s battery pack that ignited after a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash test. On other occasions, the Volt’s battery started smoking. Another brand of electric car caught fire in a parking lot and 16 of the same model burned after salt water from Hurricane Sandy flooded them on loading docks.

Technology and transportation are inextricably linked and offer unprecedented levels of safety, efficiency, and comfort in getting from one place to another. But safety should take precedence above all other factors. As the nation searches for ways to reduce its carbon footprint, reduce fossil fuel consumption, limit pollution, and reduce the cost of driving, industry needs to work hard at getting to the bottom of these critical safety issues regarding lithium-ion batteries and embrace swift action to eliminate related fire hazards. As the NTSB moves forward with increased focus on fire safety across all modes of transportation, I will be keenly interested in what the auto makers have to demonstrate that address concerns with lithium-ion batteries and safely move us into a new century of transportation achievements.

Mark Rosekind, Ph.D., is a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board. He is a frequent contributor to the NTSB blog.

Be a Super Bowl Champion – Don’t Drink and Drive


By Debbie Hersman

Sunday, family and friends will gather around the television to watch one of the biggest sports spectacles in America – the Super Bowl.   But after the next champion is crowned and the parties are over, some will get behind the wheel after having too much to drink.  Unfortunately, these celebrations too often end in tragedy.

Each year, about 10,000 people die in traffic crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers.  That would be the equivalent of one out of every eight spectators sitting in the Superdome Sunday.  And like Halloween and New Year’s Eve, Super Bowl Sunday often comes with an uptick in impaired driving crashes.

When we watch football, it’s easy to think of the players as invincible. Similarly, characters on television shows, in commercials and in movies often take risks and make it look easy or glamorous.  In real life, though, we need to understand the difference between fiction and reality.  Risk-taking that puts other’s lives in jeopardy is never a good idea.  This is especially true of driving after drinking.  We all need to make responsible decisions when we get behind the wheel, not only for our own safety, but for the well-being of our passengers and others sharing the roadway.

So this weekend, plan ahead.  Make the choice not to drink and drive.  If you’re going to drink, identify a designated driver or use cabs or public transportation.  Follow these simple and safe practices, and regardless of the outcome of the game, you will be a winner.