Category Archives: Marine Safety

Returning to Travel with Safety on the Mind

By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, Office of Safety Advocacy

Normally this time of year, the transportation safety advocacy world would be buzzing with annual calendared campaigns, like these more well-known ones in the highway safety world:

• Global Youth Traffic Safety Month
• Motorcycle Awareness Month
• 100 Deadliest Days of Summer
• NHTSA’s “Click it or Ticket” seatbelt enforcement campaign

As the weather gets warmer, students learning to drive, fly or even operate a boat would gather for educational awareness-raising events or training seminars and conferences. Driver-educators and safety advocates would be working to pour their hearts and souls into reaching teen drivers on stages around the country, hoping to convince some to avoid the bad choices that would put them at higher risk of traffic crashes. Flight schools would be gearing up for the busy summer flying months, and the US Coast Guard and other organizations would be prepping for summer safety on our waterways.

But it is different this year. This year, the country is in large part sheltering in place because of a global public health pandemic.

In terms of traffic safety, the dark cloud might have a silver lining. The Los Angeles Times reports that crash incidences have reduced by half due to the virus; however, Streetsblog.org questions whether this silver lining in the form of reduced numbers of crashes will come with another dark cloud in the form of higher rates of crashes. We will have to wait for the statistics to be compiled a year or more from now to get a clearer picture. Although advocacy messages no longer reach students face-to-face, young people have less freedom—and reason—to drive. Will those two factors cancel each other out? Will drivers of all ages remember to drive sober and without distractions? Only time will tell.

General aviation continues to operate, though in a slightly more limited fashion, but we at the NTSB continue to investigate crashes. Boaters have not been out, due to shutdowns and weather, but with summer coming, things will change.

The big question I find myself pondering is, what will transportation safety look like once we are all able to move about freely again?

I like to think that Abraham Lincoln was right when he said that the best way to predict your future is to create it. I wonder about the new normal that we could strive to achieve in transportation safety on the other side of this pandemic. I also find myself worrying about re-emergence shock on the highways.

I recall from my time in the Marine Corps that when we’d return from duty on ship for an extended period without driving, traffic safety advocates would come on board to remind us what we would be facing returning home. That type of reminder would be helpful now after this long period of reduced driving. Have our skills gotten rusty? Will our road awareness be slow to return?

A potential benefit that could come from this pandemic, though, is that many of us have become much more mindful of how our behavior affects others. Will our mindfulness stay with us when we head back out on the roads, or jump back into our cockpits, or warm up our boats?

The present crisis knocked us out of our 24/7, “go-go-go” lifestyle suddenly and shockingly. Now, it is finally sinking in that returning to that normal will not happen soon or suddenly; rather, it will happen step by step. How can we rebuild transportation safety in our new normal? Tens of thousands of lives are lost on our roads every year. For too long, we have accepted this as normal. Perhaps this pandemic will wake us up to the fact that it does not have to be this way.

The step to transitioning back to our new normal will be to remember all the little safety lessons that might not have been front-of-mind these last few weeks or months. Returning to safe driving, flying, and other transportation operations will require renewed focus. To help us return to safe operations, the NTSB and other transportation organizations will launch the #SafetyReminder campaign with a Twitter chat @NTSB, May 21, 2020, at 12pm EDT.  You can join the conversation by mentioning @NTSB in your tweets to questions and comments or simply follow the conversation using #SafetyReminder.

SafetyReminder Announcement 1

I encourage you to follow the campaign and brush up on some of the things you may have forgotten before we all get back out on the road. When it comes to transportation safety, we really are all in this together.

Ensuring Transportation Safety, Even During a Crisis

By Member Jennifer L. Homendy

For the past few weeks, I’ve woken up every morning to a text message from the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) updating riders on its continued service and modified schedule. It’s hard not to think of all the VRE and Amtrak locomotive engineers and conductors that I’ve come to recognize (or know by name—Hi, Willie and Samantha!) over the years, and how dedicated they are to continuing to serve the public during this national emergency. You and your colleagues across the country are heroes. Thank you for all you do.

The safety of transportation workers across all modes is extremely important especially during times of crisis. Our nation’s transportation workforce is essential to getting critical goods to states and local communities and to ensuring that those serving on the frontlines of this pandemic, like medical personnel, grocery store employees, and other essential personnel, are able to continue the fight against COVID-19. Without all of them, we’d be in a much more dire situation. Still, we need to make sure that the transportation workers who are putting their lives at risk daily to make deliveries or get people to work are also safe. That not only means providing them with necessary personal protective gear, but also ensuring any regulatory waivers do not jeopardize their safety or the safety of others.

Since the start of this national emergency, many transportation entities facing staffing shortages due to illness and the need to quarantine have requested emergency relief from certain safety regulations. These entities cite concerns about their ability to deliver critical goods and materials necessary for the country’s welfare while meeting regulatory requirements for inspections, training, and maintenance, to name a few. Although regulatory relief from certain requirements may be necessary during this difficult time, I urge the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to carefully review each request and put measures in place to ensure that the safety of transportation workers, and all others who must travel, remains a priority.

We are all being challenged in ways that we could not have imagined a month ago. People are staying safe by traveling only when absolutely necessary and maintaining a safe social distance from others. Those in the transportation industry are also doing what they can to stay safe while continuing to do the important work of moving the people and goods that keep our nation pushing forward during this crisis.

It’s important that any regulatory relief the DOT determines is appropriate is only temporary. This crisis can seem overwhelming, but as a nation, we will prevail. It’s important that when our lives start to take the path back to “normal,” safety regulations—many of which the NTSB has long advocated for following tragic crashes—are reinstituted. Temporary measures to address a crisis should not become the new normal. An efficient transportation network is key to our nation’s success during this challenging time, but we must not forget the importance of ensuring the safety of transportation workers and the traveling public both now and in the future.

A Tribute to NTSB Employees

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

What do you get when you cross a transportation-related life-saving mission with some of the best people in the federal government?

 The National Transportation Safety Board, of course!

 And that is no April Fool’s joke.

 On this day 53 years ago, the NTSB was formed by an act of Congress. The agency’s mission is to investigate every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant accidents in other modes of transportation, determine their probable causes, and issue safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents. In addition, we conduct special studies concerning transportation safety, and we coordinate the resources of the federal government and other organizations to provide assistance to victims and their family members impacted by major transportation disasters. We also adjudicate appeals from civil enforcement actions by the Federal Aviation Administration and the United States Coast Guard.

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Since 1967, the NTSB has investigated more than 149,000 aviation accidents and thousands of surface transportation accidents. We’ve issued more than 15,000 safety recommendations—the vast majority of which ultimately are implemented. Some of the safety measures that have arisen, at least in part, from our safety recommendations include:

Aviation

  • Floor-level escape lighting, fire-blocking seat coverings, lavatory smoke detectors, stronger cabin seats
  • Terrain avoidance and warning systems requirements
  • Inert gas use to eliminate fuel tank explosions
  • Shoulder harnesses in general aviation

Highway

  • Raising the legal drinking age to 21 and .05 percent BAC drinking and driving laws
  • Child passenger safety
  • Enforcement of commercial vehicle regulations

Marine

  • Boating-while-intoxicated laws
  • Cruise ship fire safety
  • Emergency position-indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs) on vessels

Railroad & Rail Transit

  • Positive train control
  • Passenger rail car safety standards
  • Toll-free emergency number posting at grade crossings
  • Tank car enhancements

Pipeline

  • One-call systems before excavation (“Call 811 Before You Dig”)
  • Integrity management programs
  • Facility response plan effectiveness and oversight

HAZMAT

  • Hazard communications training for first responders, community planning, and preparedness

I’m often reminded that you can have an important mission, but if you don’t have devoted, talented employees, you really don’t have a great agency. Fortunately, the NTSB has both.

Our mission generates dedication, which often translates to retention; some of our longest-serving employees have been at the agency for over 40 years. But don’t misinterpret that longevity as complacency. In the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, of the 70% of NTSB employees who completed the survey, 97% responded favorably to the statement, “When needed I am willing to put in the extra effort to get a job done.” Bear in mind that in many cases, “extra effort” is in addition to routine travel to remote accident sites with only hours’ notice!

During more than 13 years at the agency, including the past 3 as Chairman, I’ve had the pleasure to be surrounded by, and to work with, these professionals. As Chairman, I have relied on them to help formulate strategic decisions, advise me on technical details, and echo and amplify my own thirst for safety improvements.

Many of our air safety investigators are pilots and aircraft mechanics themselves—and each of them can tear down an engine. Several have built their own airplanes. Many of our highway safety investigators come from law enforcement backgrounds. Our marine investigators generally maintain licenses first earned as deck and engine officers or have Coast Guard investigative or regulatory experience. Our railroad and pipeline investigators are veterans of those industries and their regulators as well. Although doctoral degrees are common throughout the agency, the environment is as far as you can imagine from an ivory tower.

The NTSB workforce is among the best in the federal government, which is what fuels my desire to make the NTSB the best place to work in the federal government—even if, for now, we have temporarily moved that workplace into our homes.

Today, like many workforces, we are physically distant from one another, but we are not alone. We are physically separate, but we will get through this together. I’m grateful for the dedication and resilience of every one of NTSB’s employees. And that, too, is no April Fool’s joke.

Safe Travels This Holiday Season

At the NTSB, we determine the cause of transportation crashes and accidents, and issue safety recommendations that, if implemented, could save lives and minimize injuries. Unfortunately, we see far too many tragedies that could have been easily prevented. As we head into the holiday season, Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg and Member Jennifer Homendy share some travel safety tips to keep you and your loved ones safe on our roads, on our rails, on our waterways and in the air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

NTSB’s Role in Marine Accident Investigations

By Captain James Scheffer, Strategic Advisor, NTSB Office of Marine Safety

I’m often asked how the NTSB chooses which marine accidents to investigate, and what role the US Coast Guard (USCG) plays in our investigations. I had the same question when I first joined the NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety more than 20 years ago. The NTSB has specific authority under the United States Code and Code of Federal Regulations to investigate “major marine casualties.” These are accidents involving vessels that result in one or more of the following:

  • The loss of six or more lives.
  • The loss of a mechanically propelled vessel of 100 or more gross tons.
  • Property damage initially estimated as $500,000 or more.
  • Serious threat, as determined by the USCG Commandant and concurred with by the NTSB Chairman, to life, property, or the environment by hazardous materials.

Our authority to investigate covers major marine accidents on US waters or those involving US-flagged vessels worldwide. We also have the authority to investigate casualties involving public (owned by the United States) and nonpublic vessels. In these casualties the threshold is defined by at least one fatality or damages of $75,000 or greater. Our task in these investigations, whether a major marine casualty or a public and non-public casualty, is to determine the probable cause of the accident and identify  safety recommendations that will prevent similar events in the future. We also investigate, independently or with other government agencies, marine accidents in which the United States is a substantially interested state (SIS), according to the International Maritime Organization’s “Code for the Investigation of Marine Casualties and Incidents.”

NTSB investigators about to board El Yunque - sister ship of El Faro

So, where does the USCG fit in? The USCG conducts preliminary investigations of all marine accidents, then notifies us when an accident qualifies as a major marine casualty. Unlike in other modes of transportation, such as aviation, where the NTSB leads the investigation, the USCG typically takes the lead in marine casualty investigations. Under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the NTSB and USCG, however, the NTSB may become the lead federal agency for the investigation, depending on the circumstances. This may occur when there is a significant marine accident that is a subset of a major marine casualty and is defined in the MOU as the following:

  • The loss of three or more lives on a commercial passenger vessel.
  • Loss of life or serious injury to 12 or more persons on any commercial vessel.
  • The loss of a mechanically propelled commercial vessel of 1,600 or more gross tons.
  • Any marine casualty with loss of life involving a highway, bridge, railroad, or other shore side structure.
  • Serious threat, as determined by the USCG Commandant and concurred with by the NTSB Chairman, or their designees, to life, property, or the environment by hazardous materials.
  • Significant safety issues, as determined by the Commandant and concurred with by the Chairman, or their designees, relating to Coast Guard marine safety functions.

If a marine casualty meets any of the above significant marine accident criterion the NTSB may elect to be the lead federal investigative agency.

In marine casualties involving a public (federal government) and a non-public vessel, if the vessel is Coast Guard the NTSB must investigate and be the lead federal agency. With casualties involving other public and non-public vessels, in most cases, the NTSB investigates as the lead federal agency.

The Office of Marine Safety typically investigates 30 to 40 marine accidents per year meeting the above criteria, and we do so with a staff of only 21 people, including investigators, writers, support staff and supervisors/managers. To get an overview of the Office of Marine Safety’s work, take a look at our Safer Seas Digest, which can be found on our ntsb.gov website, and summarizes our recent accident investigations and findings.