The occasion was Aviation Safety Week, which gathered together transportation safety leaders from seven African nations, the EU, and the United States to share safety knowledge. Attendees were interested to learn from my presentation that in the United States, the accident investigator—the NTSB—has no power whatsoever to require change.
It’s been said that information + persuasion = advocacy. The idea is never to misrepresent; rather, it is to present information that makes the case most compellingly. If the case is compelling enough, your advocacy might inspire people to act. Then, they might influence others to act as well, creating a critical force multiplier. I spoke to my audience about advocacy methodology, messaging, and tools, and the absolute need for collaboration, working with and through others. I reminded my audience, though, that advocacy differs with the context and the organization. At the NTSB, for example, it’s the one way we can bring about change and encourage implementation of our recommendations. However, I urged safety leaders in Africa to be mindful that all advocacy is local. What might work in the United States might not necessarily work for all of Africa.
Ultimately, wherever it is done, advocacy done right moves the needle toward saving lives. As transportation safety leaders, I told my audience, we must communicate our work to gain the desired impact and outcomes. We must be proactive and go to our audience, not sit back waiting for them to come to us.
It was an honor addressing these passionate transportation safety leaders from the African region. We should always remember that our transportation safety work crosses air, land, and sea. When we share our lessons learned and best practices, and when others share theirs with us, we may save lives not just nationally, but globally, as well.
Soon after the unveiling of the MWL last year, NTSB Board members and staff sprang into action to educate, engage, and amplify the critical safety messages of our 10 safety improvements. Here’s a quick look by mode, starting with Highway, which makes up 5 of our 10 safety improvements.
In recent years, we have increasingly expressed our highway safety goals in the language of the Safe System Approach—the very approach that we use in our own safety investigations. (We first discussed the approach in our 2017 report on reducing speeding.)
The Safe System Approach views every aspect of the crash as an opportunity to interrupt the series of events leading to it, and an opportunity to mitigate the harm that the crash does. People make mistakes, but safe roads, safe vehicles, safe road users, safe speeds, and post-crash care can combine to prevent the crash entirely, or failing that, to prevent the deaths or serious injuries of road users.
Between May 2021 and February 2022, we produced seven virtual roundtables to explain the approach and call for its adoption. National and international experts discussed the approach and shared their successes and challenges. More than 1,000 advocates, regulators, academics, and others attended our webinars.
In 2021, the Department of Transportation and Congress incorporated the approach into the DOT’s National Roadway Safety Strategy and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, respectively.
Will the new model result in lifesaving protections? Only final, and positive, closure of our recommendations will answer that. But the signs are very good, with the alignment of Congress, the DOT, and the road safety community.
Vehicle to everything (V2X) technology can save lives but has been delayed, and might be reduced or stopped, due to FCC rulings limiting the spectrum for safety operations. We released a four-part video series in which Member Graham interviewed some of the leading experts in V2X technologies—including academics, researchers, automakers, and policymakers—to discuss what can be done to find a way forward to deployment.
With an increasing number of deadly fishing vessel accidents in recent years, Office of Marine Safety Director Morgan Turrell and Chair Homendy hosted a virtual roundtable on improving fishing vessel safety that was viewed by over 1,000 people. Panelists discussed what can be done to address commercial fishing safety, implement NTSB safety recommendations, and improve the safety of fishing operations in the United States.
Pipeline and Hazardous Materials
Our MWL calls for pipeline and hazardous materials (hazmat) stakeholders to “Improve Pipeline Leak Detection and Mitigation” by equipping all pipeline systems with leak-detection systems and automatic shutoff or remote-control valves. These valves allow for quick detection and mitigation.
Additionally, we produced a video featuring Member Michael Graham and Hazardous Materials Investigator Rachael Gunaratnam, which explores cases in which odorants failed as a natural gas leak-detection strategy, and promotes both required natural gas leak detectors, and voluntary adoption of such detectors until they are required.
To highlight the dangers to rail roadway workers and to help Improve Rail Worker Safety, Member Tom Chapman wrote a blog on rail worker safety, discussing how the railroad regulators—the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA)— are in the best position to make change.
We also completed our investigation of the April 24, 2018, accident in which an Amtrak rail watchman was killed in Bowie, Maryland. As a result of this investigation, we called on the FRA and Amtrak to put an immediate end to the use of train approach warning (TAW) systems as the sole method of on-track safety in areas covered by positive train control.
To mark the anniversary of the January 2017 train collision in Edgemont, South Dakota, we also issued a media statement again urging railroads to act to better protect rail roadway workers.
We are pleased by the engagement of so many of our safety advocacy partners, industry groups, and associations in the past year, to promote our recommendations and highlight transportation safety concerns. Also, we acknowledge that many industry groups and operators are making voluntary efforts to improve safety, including on some of our recommendations. However, without mandates, many others may not act.
We remain disappointed by the lack of movement by regulators to implement the safety recommendations associated with our MWL. While there has been some progress during this first year, much more needs to be done to implement the 167 remaining safety recommendations associated with the current list. The longer these authorities wait to implement our recommendations, the greater the risk to the traveling public. Safety delayed is safety denied.
The NTSB will not stand by quietly and watch as regulators, industry, and other recommendation recipients ignore and dismiss our safety recommendations—and neither should the public. As NTSB Chair Homendy expressed in recent remarks to the largest highway safety gathering in the U.S, “The horrific toll of people who’ve died on our roads and their families… millions of people who were injured… are counting on us to “fight like hell” for the next family. To give a voice to those who no longer have one.”
All our lives are on the line, and no death in transportation is acceptable. It is our mission to advocate for the changes outlined in our safety recommendations which, if implemented, will save lives.
Safety is a shared responsibility. We all play a role in getting us to zero transportation deaths. The NTSB cannot do this alone. We need each of you, individually and collectively, to help us advocate for these critical safety improvements.
By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division
As 2021 ends, it’s time to reflect on the past 12 months and begin to set goals for the year ahead. After all, as Zig Ziglar once said, “if you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.” So, let us all aim to improve the safety of our transportation system in 2022.
The NTSB recognizes the need for improvements in all modes of transportation–on the roads, rails, waterways, pipelines, and in the sky. Our 2021–2022 NTSB Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements (MWL), released in April this year, highlights the transportation safety improvements we believe are needed now to prevent accidents and crashes, reduce injuries, and save lives. We use the list to focus our advocacy efforts and to serve as an important call to action. We ask lawmakers, industry, advocacy, community organizations, and the traveling public to act and champion safety.
As a fellow safety advocate, I ask you to join me in a New Year’s resolution: I pledge to do my part tomake transportation safer for all.
To help you take steps to accomplish this resolution, our MWL outlines actions you can take to make transportation safer:
Achieving these improvements is possible; otherwise, they wouldn’t be on our list. The NTSB MWL includes tangible changes and solutions that will, undoubtedly, save lives. But it’s only words on a list if no action is taken. Unlike Times Square on New Year’s Eve, we cannot drop the ball on improvements to transportation safety. The clock is ticking, and the countdown has begun—we can’t afford to waste any more time. Make the resolution to do your part to make transportation safer for all!
In closing, I’d like to thank the transportation safety stakeholders, industry, lawmakers, and advocates we have worked with in 2021 and we look forward to working together in 2022 and beyond.
Two years ago today, a preventable tragedy became one of the worst maritime events in US history.
At about 3:14 a.m. on September 2, 2019, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) received a distress call from the Conception, a 75-foot-long small passenger vessel operated by Truth Aquatics, Inc.
The Labor Day fire began in the early morning hours, as five crewmembers slept in their upper-deck crew berthing. Two decks below, thirty-three passengers and one crewmember slept in the bunkroom. A crewmember on the upper deck, awakened by a noise, noticed a glow from the aft main deck and alerted the remaining four crewmembers that there was a fire on board. Then the captain radioed the 3:14 a.m. distress message to the USCG before evacuating the smoke-filled wheelhouse.
Crewmembers tried to get to the bunk room through the main deck salon but were blocked by fire and smoke. Unable to reach the bunkroom, they jumped overboard. Two of them re-boarded the vessel at its stern but were once again blocked by smoke and fire. Ultimately, the five crewmembers who had been sleeping on the upper deck survived. Two were treated for injuries. But tragically, the 33 passengers and one crewmember who had been asleep below deck in the bunkroom lost their lives in the fire.
Along with a multidisciplinary NTSB team, including marine safety investigators and specialists from the NTSB Transportation Disaster Assistance (TDA) and Media Relations divisions, I launched to my first maritime investigation as a Board Member. During my time on-scene, I met with the families of those on-board the vessel and gave them the only promise we at NTSB have to give, that we would find out what caused the fire aboard the Conception, in hopes of finding ways to prevent similar suffering for other families.
Our investigators, along with the USCG, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) were carefully recovering wreckage. They examined a similar vessel to help learn how it was built, and how escape might have been thwarted for so many. While we conducted our safety investigation, a parallel criminal investigation was underway.
Yet despite difficult circumstances and the limited evidence left after the fire, the NTSB was able to identify critical safety issues, determine the probable cause, and make important safety recommendations. If implemented, these recommendations will help prevent a similar tragedy from happening again.
NTSB investigators found that the Conception had no smoke detectors anywhere in the main deck salon where the fire likely started. But incredibly, there are no passenger vessel regulations requiring smoke detection in all accommodation spaces. The vessel was also required to have a roving patrol to guard against and raise alarm in case of a fire or other emergencies, but there was no evidence that such a safeguard was in place, and the USCG has difficulty enforcing such an important requirement aboard small passenger vessels.
Furthermore, small passenger vessel construction regulations for means of escape did not ensure that both escape paths from the sleeping compartment exited to different spaces. On the Conception, the only emergency routes from the passenger accommodations exited into the same space, which was fully engulfed in fire.
Finally, our investigation highlighted yet another company with ineffective safety oversight. When the Board met to deliberate the report on the tragedy on October 20, 2020, we determined that the probable cause of the fire on board the small passenger vessel Conception was the failure of Truth Aquatics, Inc., to provide effective oversight of its vessel and crewmember operations, including requirements to ensure that a roving patrol was maintained, which allowed a fire of unknown cause to grow, undetected, in the vicinity of the aft salon on the main deck. Contributing to the undetected growth of the fire was the lack of a USCG regulatory requirement for smoke detection in all accommodation spaces. Contributing to the high loss of life were the inadequate emergency escape arrangements from the vessel’s bunkroom, as both exited into a compartment that was engulfed in fire, thereby preventing escape.
The NTSB reiterated its Safety Recommendation (M-12-3) to the USCG to require all operators of U.S.-flag passenger vessels to implement safety management systems (SMS) considering the characteristics, methods of operation, and nature of service of these vessels, and, with respect to ferries, the sizes of the ferry systems within which the vessels operate. An SMS is an enormously powerful tool which helps a safety critical company identify hazards and mitigate risks.
Additionally, we issued seven new safety recommendations to the USCG to:
require new and existing small passenger vessels to be equipped with smoke detectors in all accommodation spaces, which are interconnected so that when one detector alarms, the remaining detectors also alarm.
develop and implement inspection procedures to ensure vessel operators are conducting roving patrols when required.
require a secondary means of escape into different exits from overnight accommodations that emerge into different spaces than the primary exit, and that those routes are not obstructed.
While these regulatory changes may take time, the NTSB also recommended that industry groups such as the Passenger Vessel Association act voluntarily to install smoke detectors and improve emergency egress routes. Finally, we recommended that the company that operated the Conception implement an SMS to improve safety practices and minimize risk.
The Conception investigation report is an excellent example of the NTSB’s ability to complete investigations in a timely manner, resulting in effective common-sense safety recommendations. It is now up to the USCG and industry to make these essential changes to improve safety and prevent the horrendous loss of life we saw two years ago on Labor Day weekend. The NTSB added Improve Passenger and Fishing Vessel Safety to its Most Wanted List in 2021 and will actively advocate to ensure these safety recommendations are implemented.
I guess it all started on an overcast day in 1973, when I found myself on the scene of a fatal aviation crash for the first time. I had heard of the crash on my car radio, and, as a curious 17‑year-old, I decided to find the crash location. Once there, I saw the remains of a twin-engine airplane lodged in the bases of the surrounding pine trees. Seeing that accident scene sparked an acute interest within me for accident investigation. In college, I spent copious amounts of time in the government documents library reading NTSB aircraft accident reports. It was then, in the mid-1970s, that I began to dream of becoming an NTSB Board member. Today, as I wrap up 15 years with the agency, serving as Board member, vice chairman, and chairman, I can look back and say I have truly lived that dream.
I was sworn in as the 37th member of the NTSB in August 2006. Seven days later, I found myself on the scene of another aviation disaster. Comair flight 5191, a regional jet operated as a Delta Connection, crashed just off the departure end of a runway in Lexington, Kentucky. Forty-nine lives were lost that morning after the pilots inexplicitly attempted to take off on a short, closed, unlighted runway. The investigation found that the pilots’ casual attitude during preflight and during the brief taxi, including their engaging in nonpertinent conversation, enabled the crew’s errors. Quite simply, the crew wasn’t paying attention and lost positional awareness. As a result, we issued and reiterated several recommendations to prevent that same type of accident. Today, flights are safer because airline pilots use enhanced procedures to ensure they are aligned with the proper runway before departure, and pilots have electronic maps that provide real-time position information during taxi.
Since the Comair crash, I’ve been on the NTSB Go-Team and served as the Board member on scene for 35 transportation accidents and crashes, and I’ve been involved in the deliberation and determination of probable cause of over 250 accidents and crashes. I’ve met with grieving family members and friends of victims on the worst day of their lives. Through these interactions, the one thing that really stands out to me is just how precious life really is. I’ve often said that we are here to give a voice to those who don’t have a voice—the victims of transportation accidents and their families. I take great solace knowing our work really does make a difference and keeps others from enduring similar tragedies.
Looking back, I believe there are two things that allow the NTSB to truly be one of the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government,” as ranked by the Partnership for Public Service: the agency’s mission, and our people.
First, the agency’s mission: Congress charged the NTSB with investigating transportation accidents and crashes, determining their cause, and issuing safety recommendations to prevent similar accidents and crashes, reduce injuries, and save lives. It’s an important calling—taking something tragic and learning from it so others don’t have to endure such a tragedy. Since the NTSB was formed in 1967, we have investigated over 150,000 aviation accidents, along with thousands of highway, marine, rail, pipeline, and hazardous materials accidents and incidents. In that period, we’ve issued over 15,000 safety recommendations, the majority of which have been successfully implemented.
Our people: Even with a respectable mission, you’re nothing without great people. Fortunately, this is where the NTSB really takes the cake. We’re able to attract and retain dedicated, bright employees who love their work. We actively promote diversity and inclusion, and my hope is that the agency will continue to expand this effort. Our investigators’ passion and determination to find the truth is uplifting. Even throughout the pandemic, although working remotely, NTSB employees found ways to continue delivering our high-quality products. For example, before the pandemic, we had never conducted virtual Board meetings, where we deliberate accident findings, determine the probable cause, and adopt safety recommendations. Even with the challenges of 2020, our employees figured a way to get it done. We held 12 virtual Board meetings in a year, which compares favorably to a normal year of in-person meetings. Although I’ve always had high expectations of the NTSB workforce, I can honestly say that, considering the challenges we all faced during the pandemic, NTSB employees surpassed all expectations.
There are several other qualities that allow the NTSB to be a highly respected federal agency. One of our core values is transparency; we are open and honest with the public about our work. We realize that, when a transportation disaster occurs, the public needs to be assured that the government is conducting an open, competent, and thorough investigation. Therefore, we deliver fact-based information as we learn it. We don’t speculate—just the facts, ma’am. All NTSB Board meetings and hearings are open to the public (literally in person when not in pandemic times, and always via webcast). We post all our accident reports and publications on our website, along with the docket for each accident, which provides reams of background information such as interviews, photos, and technical information that may not be in the final accident report.
When I was sworn in for my first term at the agency in 2006, I told the audience something I had read: “Public service is one of the highest callings in the land. You have the opportunity to make a positive impact on families, communities, states, and sometimes the world.”
I followed up by saying, “I truly believe this statement applies so well to the work of the NTSB. When my term expires, I hope we can look back and say, ‘you know, we—Board members, professional staff, industry, labor, government—we all worked together, and we did make a positive impact.”
Indeed, looking back, I truly believe we have made a difference.
I will very much miss working with the incredibly dedicated men and women of the NTSB. It will be hard to stop referring to the NTSB as “we.” Although I will no longer be part of it, the NTSB will always be part of me. For that privilege, I am forever proud and grateful. I have lived my dream.