Episode 46: Chair Jennifer Homendy

In this episode of Behind-the-Scene @NTSB, Chair Jennifer Homendy reflects on her NTSB journey so far, her transition from Board Member to Chair, and talks about our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements, the Safe System Approach, and what she hopes to see accomplished to improve transportation safety as head of the agency.

For more information about the NTSB Most Wanted List visit our website.

To learn more about the NTSB Safe System Approach Roundtable Series hosted by Chair Homendy visit our website. Recordings of each installment of the series are available on our YouTube channel.

The previously released podcast episodes featuring Chair Homendy are available on our website.

Subscribe to the podcast on Apple PodcastsStitcher or your favorite podcast platform.

And find more ways to listen here: https://www.blubrry.com/behind_the_scene_ntsb/

40 Years Later: The Safety Impact of the 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age Law

By Leah Walton, NTSB Safety Advocate

I was 21 years old in the year 2000 when I started working in the field of impaired driving prevention, specifically underage drinking prevention. I remember some of my colleagues recalling, “Back in my day, the legal drinking age was 18 years old.” I don’t have that recollection – as long as I can remember, I have known the legal drinking age to be 21.

It is incredible that many folks still remember a time when turning 18 meant a celebration of adulthood marked by legal consumption of alcohol. It is a similar feeling for me to consider that at one point seat belts weren’t standard safety equipment in vehicles.

Between 1970 and 1982, in many American states, the legal drinking age was reduced from 21 to 18 or 19. But on our roads, lowering the legal drinking age showed an immediate increase in deaths, as impaired teen drivers died, and killed others, behind the wheel.

Then on March 14, 1982, forty years ago, the NTSB investigated a collision where a train collided with a van at a railroad grade crossing in Mineola, NY, in what I might describe as a parent’s worst nightmare. Nine of the 10 occupants of the van, all teenagers, died. The tenth survived with serious injuries. The 19-year-old owner and presumed driver of the van, who died in the crash, was impaired at the time of the crash.

The crash was a turning point. By that July, NTSB called for states with drinking ages below age 21 to raise them to age 21.

Why was the drinking age lowered in the first place? In 1971, the 26th Amendment extended the right to vote in Federal elections to citizens as young as 18. Many states had already adopted age-18 voting. Taking the trend into the realm of alcohol consumption, between 1970 and 1973, 35 states lowered their drinking age to 18 or 19, either for beer and wine only, or for all alcoholic beverages.

This in turn sparked a deadly trend in alcohol-impaired driving crashes involving teen drivers, with some states changing their drinking ages back to 21. Studies of states that reverted from age 18 or 19 drinking back to age 21 showed impressive results.

For example, Michigan lowered its drinking age to 18 in January 1972 and raised it back to 21 in December 1978. A study of the change found “crash involvement among 18–20-year-old drivers, showed a reduction of 31 percent in the first 12 months after the drinking age was raised from 18 to 21 in December of 1978.”[1]

There were precautions in place to prevent the Mineola crash – regardless of age, it was still illegal to drive impaired, and the owner and presumed driver of the van in the Mineola crash was impaired. Additionally, the grade crossing was protected by an automatic gate. The gate was lowered, and its lights were flashing, at the time of the crash.  But the van was driven around the gate, onto the main line tracks of the Long Island Rail Road and into the path of an oncoming train.

Would it have mattered if the legal drinking age were 21? Perhaps, difficulty in obtaining alcohol would have broken the chain of events, perhaps not.

But we know that the fatality numbers change when the minimum drinking age changes. In statistical terms, it is clear, a drinking age of 21 saves lives. And, when combined with other changes, the culture around youth drinking and driving can change.

That is why, in 1984, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was signed, effective September 30, 1985. With that law, also championed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and other advocacy organizations, the state-by-state recommendations made by NTSB in the wake of the Mineola crash became national policy.

Since that time, even more research has come out about the age of full brain development (mid-20’s) and how alcohol affects the brain which reiterates the gravity of this law.

Devastating experiences, the newer science of brain development, the impact on alcohol and the developing brain, and historical data of lower drinking ages have shaped legal drinking age policy. However, while changing the legal drinking age has saved lives, over 10,000 die on the nation’s roads every year because of alcohol-impaired driving. The bottom line remains – impaired driving is 100% preventable – whether the driver is 18, 21, or 51 years old.  

[1] Wagenaar, Alexander Clarence, The Minimum Legal Drinking Age: A Times-Series Impact Evaluation, Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1980, p. 148.

Reflections on International Women’s Day

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

Who will be speaking? The Chair? What’s his name?

That’s what I overheard a reporter asking an NTSB employee just a few weeks ago. We were in Pittsburgh, where I was on scene for the agency’s investigation into the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge.  

I couldn’t help myself and jumped in with: “He’s a she…and it’s me!”

The reporter was mortified and apologized profusely. We shared a laugh and went on to have a great press conference.

NTSB Chair Homendy at a press briefing on the NTSB investigation into the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Even though I responded with humor, that exchange was just one example of an unconscious bias that women encounter every day. Of course, unconscious biases can reflect one or more “-isms:” racism, ableism, heterosexism, ageism, classism, etc. 

In all fairness to the reporter, he responded appropriately. By that I mean he acknowledged his mistake and apologized sincerely. He wasn’t defensive and he didn’t invalidate my reaction. His response showed real humility, which is why we were able to move on so quickly.  

What You Can Do

I offer two suggestions for small but powerful ways you can recognize International Women’s Day and #BreakTheBias.

First, accept that no one is free from unconscious bias. Work to become aware of the ways you may show your own “-isms” and do what the reporter did: own the error and offer a genuinely sincere apology. Fight the urge to say I didn’t mean it like that. The only way to ensure you do better next time is to respond with humility.

You can also be intentional about using words that communicate a sense of belonging. When backed up by action, the language we use can change the culture from one of exclusion to one of inclusion.

Women in Transportation

Increasing the representation of women in all transportation modes will go a long way toward combatting unconscious bias. Consider the following statistics:

  • Aviation: Women hold only 8.5% of FAA pilot certificates. Female flight engineers, 4.3%; mechanics, 2.6%; parachute riggers, 10.1%; ground instructors, 7.8%; air traffic controllers, 16.8%; dispatchers, 19.7%.
  • Highway: While 49% of all workers nationally are women, only 18% of infrastructure workers are women. Moreover, in 20 of the largest infrastructure occupations, less than 5% of workers are women. And 7.9% of truck drivers are women.
  • Marine: Women make up just 1.2% of the global seafarer workforce. While this represents a nearly 46% jump from 2015, it’s not nearly enough.
  • Railroad: Women hold less than 8% of rail transportation jobs and the latest Federal Railroad Administration report acknowledges that “recruiting and retaining a diverse representation of employees remains a persistent issue.”
  • Pipeline & Hazardous Materials: Over 80% of hazardous materials removal workers are male — and just 15% of civil engineers are women. As for pipeline, women make up 10.8% of the pipeline transportation workforce and 21.8% in natural gas distribution. Unfortunately, these numbers drop even lower when it comes to higher-paying technical jobs in the oil and gas industry.

We have work to do, including here at NTSB. Our latest state of the agency report showed that our female workforce is 7% below the civilian labor force — something I think about every day. I’m only the fourth woman to serve as Chair since the agency was created in 1966. This is a message I’ll be sharing at the upcoming International Women in Aviation Conference.

When I was appointed to lead the NTSB, I made the decision to be addressed as Chair Homendy. I didn’t make this out of personal preference, but for the next woman to serve in the role. Perhaps, if we de-gender the office, the fifth female Chair will have one less bias to break.  

BEFORE LANDING CHECKLIST to Pilot: “Remember me?”

By Leah Read, NTSB Senior Air Safety Investigator

“N555$$, call the tower.  N555$$ call the tower…your gear isn’t down!”

As a newly minted certified flight instructor (CFI) in the early 90s, I loved reading the latest addition of Flight Training magazine. I’ll never forget reading a funny quip about a pilot who was on final approach to land at a controlled airport and forgot to extend his landing gear. The control tower tried to contact the pilot numerous times to warn him, but he never responded and landed gear up. Once the pilot realized what happened and came to a stop on the runway, he called the tower and learned that the tower had tried to contact him several times. The pilot responded, “Sorry, I didn’t hear you because there was a horn going off in the cockpit!” To this day, whenever I fly a retractable gear airplane, I always think of that story. I’ve only had one gear-up landing in my 33 years of flying, and that was due to mechanical failure that prevented the gear from extending. I can say from experience: landing gear‑up involves a lot of loud scraping noises, a shortened roll out, and an even shorter step out of the airplane.

As part of my duties as a regional NTSB investigator, I take “phone duty” for the entire eastern region of the Unites States during on-call periods. As the duty officer, I receive all the incident and accident notifications from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or directly from pilots, and I’m surprised by the amount of gear-up landings we process. Now, some of these are due to mechanical issues like I experienced, but most of them are due to pilots (who admit) they either got complacent or distracted (or both!) and simply forgot to extend the gear.

Photo of King Air taken by SRQ Airport Operations

Gear-up landings usually don’t result in serious injuries to pilots and passengers, but they are a big ego buster. They also cost a lot of money in unnecessary damage to the airplane’s propellers, engines, structure, antennae, and skin. Often a mechanic needs to be hired to remove skin so the damage can be better evaluated. More money! And, if the damage is substantial, you’ll also be dealing with an “accident” as defined by 49 Code of Federal Regulations 830.2, and you’ll not only be getting a call from your local FAA inspector, but also from your friendly NTSB investigator. Nobody has time for that!

So, how do you make sure you never forget to put your gear down?

  1. Use your BEFORE LANDING checklist—it’s there for a reason!
  2. Repeat your GUMPS check (gas, undercarriage, mixture, propeller, seat belts and switches) OUT LOUD several times before you land.
  3. Visually (if possible) confirm the gear is extended.
  4. Stay ALERT and FOCUSED on flying (configuring) the airplane in the traffic pattern. AVOID unnecessary conversation and MAINTAIN situational awareness. Traffic patterns can get hectic, and things can happen fast.
  5. Do some online research for articles about avoiding gear-up landings. There are some good articles and case studies out there written by CFIs and highly experienced pilots.

And remember: keep the rubber side down!

Happy flying!