The Legacy of a Judge

By Christopher A. Hart

NTSB Administrative Law Judge Patrick G. Geraghty giving a presentation during AirVenture 2012.
Judge Geraghty giving a presentation during AirVenture 2012.

When people think of the NTSB, they most often think of our investigators working diligently at the scene of accidents in transportation. Many are also familiar with the safety recommendations that we issue to help make transportation safer.

What is less well known is that the NTSB serves as a “court of appeal” for airmen, mechanics or mariners who are contesting an FAA or USCG certificate action.  Our administrative law judges hear, consider, and issue initial decisions on such appeals.

On February 6, 2016, the NTSB suffered the sudden loss of Administrative Law Judge Patrick G. Geraghty. On behalf of the entire agency, I would like to express my condolences to Judge Geraghty’s family, friends, and colleagues.

Judge Geraghty served this nation as a naval aviator in the U.S. Marine Corps where he flew F-4 Phantom jets during the Vietnam War.  After his military service, he served as a senior trial attorney with the Federal Aviation Administration before becoming an Administrative Law Judge.  He was first appointed to hear cases with the U.S. Department of Labor. Judge Geraghty joined the NTSB as an administrative law judge in 1975.  During his more than 41 years of distinguished service with the NTSB, he heard and decided hundreds of medical and aviation enforcement cases.  He was a respected jurist who was always generous in sharing his expertise and advice with his fellow judges and with staff.

Judge Geraghty sometimes upheld FAA orders to suspend or revoke a pilot’s license, but he was also an instructor who helped many pilots learn how to comply with the regulations — and fly more safely — as they began or advanced their aviation careers. He held an airline transport pilot certificate and was a certified flight instructor. He also earned the prestigious title of PADI course instructor in scuba diving, and trained hundreds of scuba divers and instructors.

Judge Geraghty balanced scholarship and professionalism with a zest for everything else that life had to offer. He was a voracious reader and a lifelong learner, and he passionately pursued skiing, scuba diving, martial arts, and flying. In recent years, he learned to play the bagpipes, and traveled to Italy to take an immersion course in Italian. At the time of his passing, he was working toward a black belt in Kung Fu.

In addition to many colleagues and friends, Judge Geraghty is survived by his wife, Donna; his sons, Michael and Matthew, and his grandsons Matt and Jack.

Judge Geraghty will be greatly missed, but his legacy lives on in the many lives he enriched, both through his service to others and through the example that he set.

Rail Tank Car Improvements – Make Them Now!

By Robert L. Sumwalt

Improve Rail Tank Car SafetyJust more than a year ago, on February 15, 2015, twenty-seven tank cars of a 109-car crude oil unit train derailed near Mount Carbon, West Virginia. Crude oil was released from the derailed cars and immediately ignited into a pool of fire. Emergency responders evacuated 1,100 people within a half-mile radius of the accident and allowed the fire to burn itself out.

All of the cars involved in the Mount Carbon accident were the enhanced DOT-111 tank cars built to the industry’s CPC-1232 standard, the best available general service tank car at the time of the accident. Yet, the fire created by two punctured tank cars resulted in 13 adjacent tank cars becoming breached when heat exposure weakened their shells, which were not equipped with thermal protection systems.

The NTSB has investigated other recent train derailments in the United States involving the release of flammable materials and post-accident fires, including the 2013 derailment of 20 crude oil tank cars in Casselton, North Dakota; the 2014 derailment of 17 crude oil tank cars in Lynchburg, Virginia; the 2015 derailment of six crude oil tank cars in Heimdal, North Dakota; and the derailment of seven ethanol tank cars in Lesterville, South Dakota.

Improve Rail Tank Cars # 2We, in the United States, have been relatively lucky, because most of the accidents that have occurred here—while still terrible and frightening to nearby residents who witnessed towering fireballs—have missed densely populated locations.

Such was not the case in LacMégantic, Quebec, a community which was not so lucky. In 2013, 63 tank cars of a crude-oil unit train derailed there, killing 47 people and destroying much of the town. In Canada, the media and government agencies continue to cover the disaster’s aftermath—and for good reason. Twenty-seven children who lost one or both parents in the disaster, known as “the orphans of Lac-Mégantic,” continue to struggle through a life forever changed. Of 800 interviewees from the area, more than half suffered depression, PTSD, and other negative feelings. Almost one in four suffered a material loss.

In all of these accidents, in both the United States and Canada, trains were carrying flammable liquids in DOT-111 tank cars. And in all of these accidents, the trains derailed.

There are three important layers of protection against such accidents:

  1. Keep the train on the tracks. Track defects are one of the leading causes of train derailments. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data show a steady decrease in track-caused accidents over the past 20 years, due to railroad emphasis on investing in infrastructure and technological advances in track inspection systems. Continuous improvement in track maintenance is critical to reducing the probability of accidents.
  2. Keep the product in the tank car. Everybody agrees that without major upgrades, DOT-111 tank cars are not up to the task of the transportation of hazardous flammable liquids. In response to these accidents, last year the DOT issued new tank car regulations, but with a generous phase-in period. The new regulations will require that cars carrying crude oil and ethanol meet the DOT-117 standard by 2025, and that tank cars carrying other flammable liquids meet them by 2029. But as accidents like those cited above vividly demonstrate, each day that passes until our nation’s present tank car fleet is replaced or upgraded is a day lived with elevated risk. Therefore, present day tank cars should be replaced or retrofitted to meet the safer DOT-117 standard—sooner rather than later.
  3. If the worst happens, ensure that first responders are able to respond safely and effectively to the disaster. It is important to understand whether transportation operators are applying sufficient operational safeguards to counter these risks and whether emergency responders have the knowledge, guidance, equipment, procedures, and training to keep pace with a multitude of potential threats from hazardous materials releases and other consequences of transportation accidents.

The new DOT-117 standard includes tank head shields, thicker shell material for increased puncture resistance, tank jackets and thermal protection systems with reclosing high-capacity pressure relief devices, and stronger protection for bottom outlet valves and top fittings. While the NTSB has not independently determined industry’s capacity to retrofit or replace the existing tank car fleet, we would have preferred a more aggressive implementation schedule. Additionally, in the absence of intermediate milestones for full implementation of DOT-117 standards for all flammable liquids tank cars, it is up to fleet owners and regulators to ensure continuous and meaningful progress toward the use of more robust tank cars that are less prone to release products in accidents.

Similarly, positive train control (PTC) was required to be implemented by 2015, but at the end of the year, the deadline was extended to 2018. Some railroads have already advised the FRA they will need an extension to the extension, pushing implementation to late 2020.

It takes effort and money to make changes to enhance safety, and the NTSB applauds the efforts thus far to implement PTC. But it’s time to finish the job.

Similarly, we await concerted efforts by the railroads to upgrade the existing fleet of DOT-111 tank cars in flammable liquids service to the new DOT-117 standard, or relegate them to the carriage of less dangerous cargo.

A year after the Mount Carbon crude oil train fire, residents there know that they narrowly escaped their town becoming the American Lac-Mégantic – an outcome of a fiery derailment that could still happen at any moment.

For that reason, our 2016 Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements includes Promote Completion of Rail Safety Initiatives. The NTSB will continue to examine PTC implementation and the makeup of tank car fleets as factors in future railroad accident investigations, because these initiatives will significantly lower the risk of such railroad tragedies.

Robert L. Sumwalt is a Member of the NTSB Board.

Emerging from Tragedy to Inspire Others to Disconnect

By Nicholas Worrell

Fletcher speaking to youth advocatesAs we go into Valentine’s weekend, where we give our love and commitment to our significant others, I wanted to share a story of a young man who has shown extraordinary love and commitment to his community and to young people across the United States. His gift is not roses or chocolates, but the gift of his story and the lessons he imparts.

Fletcher was a high-school athlete on the verge of entering college. He was fast, but not the fastest – so he developed moves that other guys didn’t have. He was strong but not the strongest – so he spent hour after hour in the gym developing his body. Time after time, Fletcher overcame obstacles and excelled, despite the odds, through sheer commitment.

Fletcher didn’t get the attention of the big colleges, but his combination of intensity, work ethic, and on-the-field flash landed him a football scholarship to attend Lambuth University in Jackson, Tennessee.

But all that hard work to play at the collegiate level was nothing compared to the challenges he would face next.

On September 10, 2009, as Fletcher was driving with a friend near his home, he was struck by an oncoming car driven by a distracted driver. Fletcher vaguely recalls the lights of the driver’s phone in her face before the horrific crash, which paralyzed him.

Fletcher speaking with teensLast year, I had the privilege of meeting Fletcher during the NTSB’s Youth Open House and Transportation Education Day, an event aimed at teaching teens about safer driving practices and empowering them to become advocates for safe driving. Motor vehicle crashes remain the number one killer of teens – even more than the toll of cancer, drugs, and violence. In the last decade, more than 2,000 teens have died every year in such crashes.

Fletcher eagerly accepted our invitation to tell his story about the impact of distracted driving. As he told his story to the rapt teens in the audience, I couldn’t help but be impressed by how that same commitment to become a great athlete – no matter his size and other obstacles – quickly reemerged again after his tragic accident and found a focus on teen education. Fletcher had doubled down, pouring all that same intensity and commitment into youth education – and being in a wheelchair didn’t hinder him in the least.

Through his story, he reminded the audience that driving safely prevents needless tragedies. Although technology and teens go hand in hand these days, he urged teens to put down the phones and avoid distractions while driving. While his plans for athletic glory had been tragically cut short, he told teens that they can pursue their dreams – and not to take risks that might remove that option from their future. His powerful story is told in a video from AT&T’s It Can Wait campaign, which was produced with an ESPN team.

Fletcher lost the use of his lower body because another driver was not disciplined enough to put down a portable electronic device while driving. That driver, sadly, was never caught and convicted. Yet, as he talked to teens at our open house about the dangers of distracted driving, Fletcher smiled.

He smiled because he has a new purpose. He smiled because, although he lost the use of his lower body, his mental toughness has increased two-fold. He has a new goal in life that saves lives. He’s still in the game and he knows it.

So this Valentine’s day, I encourage you to think of Fletcher and give a gift to your fellow mankind: when you’re behind the wheel, focus only on the task of driving. 

Nicholas Worrell is the Chief of the Safety Advocacy division

Addressing Motorcoach Safety at UMA

By Robert Accetta

NTSB staff at the UMA Motorcoach Expo 2016Motorcoaches, given their size and construction, are inherently safer than most vehicles on the road. But more can be done to protect passengers in the unlikely event of a crash. That’s the safety message my fellow highway investigator Mike LaPonte, and I brought to the United Motorcoach Association’s (UMA) Motorcoach Expo 2016, held in Atlanta last week.

In a session before UMA’s Board of Directors, which consisted of nearly 40 motorcoach owner-operators from across the country, we highlighted lessons learned from crashes involving motorcoaches. One crash we discussed at length occurred in Orland, California, in April 2014. A FedEx truck driver became incapacitated for unknown reasons, and the truck crossed a median and struck a motorcoach, head-on, coming in the opposite direction. The FedEx truck’s fuel tank ruptured, sending diesel fuel into the motorcoach. The bus was quickly consumed by fire.

While the motorcoach operator did not cause the crash, numerous passengers died in the bus as a result of the collision and because they could not escape quickly enough from the burning vehicle. The crash resulted in the NTSB making several recommendations requiring better exit lighting, a secondary exit, and improved flammability standards.

Additionally, the event data recorder (EDR) did not survive the crash due to the high heat of the fire – making it difficult to determine specifics related to the crash. This highlighted the need for fire and crash-resistant EDRs in all commercial vehicles. The need for such recorder technology in commercial vehicles is on our new 2016 Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.

Our booth at the expo provided attendees additional information on the agency’s Most Wanted List – our top 10 list of needed safety improvements in all modes of transportation. Nearly 200 motorcoach owners, operators, manufacturers, and other vendors stopped by to learn more from me, Mike, and our advocacy folks about the NTSB and what it deems to be the most critical safety concerns for motorcoach operators. These issues include fatigue, distraction, substance impairment, occupant protection, driver medical fitness for duty, and the need for collision avoidance and recorder technologies in all vehicles.

At the expo, there were numerous vendors offering technologies related to fatigue management, electronic logs, tire pressure monitoring, and collision avoidance systems. And many bus operators seemed to show a real interest in continual safety improvements as a critical element of running an effective business.

One speaker, an expert on customer analysis, reminded motorcoach companies about the importance of putting their customers—passengers—first. Companies which do so tend to be the most successful. And what better way to show a commitment to your customers than by ensuring their safety.

After all, operating safely is just good business.

Robert Accetta is an Investigator-in-Charge in the NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety

Super Bowl 50: What’s Your Game Plan?

By Dr. Rob Molloy

sb50-banner-586x126If this year’s big game draws the attention that last year’s did, more than 100 million people will be watching the Denver Broncos play the Carolina Panthers. For many, the big game means an opportunity to get friends together watch the game and enjoy a few drinks.

One of the things I enjoy most about preparing for the game are all the interesting stats that are reported. For instance, a 30-second TV commercial for Super Bowl I in 1967 cost, $37,000; in 2015 the same ad would cost a record-setting $4.5 million. The highest-priced ticket for Super Bowl I was $12;for 2015 it was $17,800.

Two numbers, fortunately, have declined a lot. In 1982, the first year that NHTSA tracked highway fatalities through its Fatality Analysis Reporting System, 21,113 people died in U.S. crashes involving alcohol-impaired driving, representing nearly one-half of all highway fatalities.

By 2014, the number had declined to 9,967, representing almost one in three. But for at least 15 years, that proportion has been stuck at about one in three.

We think that one key to driving this number down is to have a game plan. More than 40 percent of alcohol-related highway deaths occur during weekends, so remember that when you’re planning your party for the big game. By planning ahead football fans can take personal responsibility to make the roads safer this weekend.

If you’re hosting a party that involves alcohol, ensure that all of your guests know the playbook: have a safe, sober ride home. If one doesn’t, they might need some time on the bench… or at least your couch.

The quarterback is said to play the most important position on the field, and the designated sober driver plays the most important role in any group at a Super Bowl party where drinks are served.

If you’re the designated sober driver, as one Super Bowl-winning coach put it, do your job. Enjoy the game with food and non-alcoholic drinks.

This Super Bowl Sunday, the winning game plan is to designate your sober driver before the game starts!

If you’re the designated sober driver, considering taking the MADD #DD pledge

Need a sober ride? Check out the links below for programs in your state or the SaferRide mobile app.

For more information on the NTSB’s recommendations to end alcohol-impaired driving visit End Substance Impairment in Transportation.

Dr. Rob Molloy is the Acting Director of the NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety.