Category Archives: Marine Safety

Reflecting back on 10 years as a Board Member

By Robert Sumwalt

On August 21, 2006, I was sworn in as the 37th member of the National Transportation Safety Board. At the same time, I was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as NTSB Vice Chairman. In 2011, President Barack Obama reappointed me for an additional five-year term as a board member.

Robert Sumwalt, taking the oath of office, administered by then-NTSB Chairman Mark V. Rosenker on August 21, 2006.
Robert Sumwalt, taking the oath of office, administered by then-NTSB Chairman Mark V. Rosenker on August 21, 2006.

As I reflect on 10 years as an NTSB board member, there are several things that stand out. First, is the mission. Our role in transportation safety quickly became apparent when, on my seventh day on the job, I launched to an airline crash in Lexington, Kentucky. Tragically, that crash claimed 49 lives.

But, the NTSB’s primary mission involves more than just investigating accidents. It also involves determining the cause of accidents, and then, most importantly, issuing safety recommendations to prevent future accidents. At the entrance to our training center, we have an etched glass window that says, “From tragedy we draw knowledge to protect the safety of us all.” And that’s exactly what we do – we learn from tragedy so we can keep it from happening again.

Recently, one of our investigators wrote to me about a rail accident he investigated where fire and explosion claimed multiple lives. He told of meeting a man who was glaring at the carnage as he pushed a baby in a carriage. As it turned out, the man’s wife – the baby’s mother – had been killed in the disaster. Our investigator promised the man that the NTSB would get to the bottom of why this event occurred so other accidents could be prevented. “I also watched a man standing outside of the exclusion zone peering over the barrier in tears as a backhoe demolished his home,” the investigator explained in his note to me. “My thoughts were of those victims, and it was clear that we were being called upon to do this for them.”

Yes, we are here to give a voice to those who don’t have a voice—the victims and their families of transportation accidents. I take great solace knowing our work really does make a difference and keeps others from enduring similar tragedies.

The NTSB is an independent federal agency – meaning, we are not attached to a larger federal organization such as the U.S. Department of Transportation. In my opinion, independence is one of our greatest virtues because it allows the agency to conduct investigations and explore safety issues without being encumbered by actual or perceived political pressures. As I’ve often said, our independence allows us to “call it the way we see it.”

What also stands out to me is the dedication of the men and women of the NTSB. Their passion and determination to find the truth is uplifting. In the most recent employee viewpoint survey, 96 percent of respondents replied positively to the statement, “When needed I am willing to put in the extra effort to get a job done.” That demonstrates the commitment and dedication NTSB employees share for fulfilling our mission.

In addition to investigative activities, there is a proactive side to the NTSB. Our staff conducts safety studies, tracks and follows up on our safety recommendations, and advocates for safety improvements by providing testimony on safety issues, promoting our Most Wanted List, bringing important safety issues into the public discussion via social media efforts, and organizing safety events such as roundtable discussions.

One of the NTSB’s values is transparency; we are open and honest with the public about our work. We post on our website all accident reports and publications, as well as the docket for each accident. The docket provides reams of background information for accidents, such as interviews, photos, and technical information that may not be in the actual accident report. Our board meetings are webcast and open to the public. And, our Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications ensures the media are informed of the status of investigations by answering questions, arranging interviews, issuing press releases, and releasing updates through social media.

Many are surprised to learn that the NTSB also serves as a court of appeals for pilots, aircraft mechanics, and mariners who receive violation notices from the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S Coast Guard. The NTSB’s Office of Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) processes those cases, and our three ALJs hold hearings to adjudicate those matters.

The NTSB’s Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance – a highly trained group with expertise in social services, emergency management, and forensics – works closely with various organizations to meet the needs of disaster victims and their families. This group also serves as the primary point of contact for family members and disaster victims, providing updates regarding the status of NTSB investigations and addressing their questions. It takes a special person to do the work they do, and I’m always appreciative of how well they do it.

There are other parts of the agency that aren’t often acknowledged, but nevertheless are important to allowing the agency to function. As in any organization, job openings need to be posted and filled, bills paid, contracts written and executed, and our computers maintained. The employees who perform these functions are as dedicated as those performing the agency’s core mission.

To put it simply, I’m so proud to be part of this agency. Our mission, independence, transparency, and people are all so important. I’m honored to have served with them for the past 10 years.

Robert Sumwalt is an NTSB board member.

Training for Safety on the Seas

By Dr. T. Bella Dinh-Zarr

Vice Chairman Dinh-Zarr and Office of Marine Safety Director Tracy Murrell at the MITAGS Simulator.Earlier this summer, I was delighted to sail a cargo ship into the Port of Baltimore. Well, it was actually in the MITAGS Class A ship handling simulator, but it was thrilling and informative, nonetheless. The Maritime Institute of Technology & Graduate Studies (MITAGS) is a non-profit training center for mariners and a center for maritime research.

NTSB Office of Marine Safety Director Tracy Murrell assisted me as I safely sailed the cargo ship carrying a full load past the correct buoys, despite the (simulated) rough waters, a nearby vessel fire, and rain and snow. Although Executive Director Glen Paine, Training Director Eric Friend, and their colleagues enjoyed putting us to the test, they were also showing us the simulator’s high-fidelity graphics and realistic ship behavior. The simulator enables the MITAGS to conduct its hands-on training programs and ship and port modeling studies. With accurate navigational technology in front of me and screens several stories high depicting the outside waters and port, I felt like I was in an actual bridge of a ship. I also came away with an even greater appreciation for the complex tasks that pilots and ships officers must perform when responsible for the safe navigation of a vessel.

Mariners must be vigilant about safety at all times, and training is vital for mariners of all types—whether a seaman or an unlimited tonnage master or pilot—to prevent both personal injuries and environmental damage. The MITAGS develops and delivers maritime training and education programs to do just that.

In addition to using the simulator, we had the opportunity to hear about the many classes offered, such as limited license training, marine safety/emergency response training, and chief mate/master management programs—over 120 classes in all. The MITAGS is the primary training center for the International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots, and companies use the resources at the center for research studies, as well. The MITAGS is located near Baltimore, and the associated Pacific Maritime Institute (PMI) is in Seattle.

Whether we travel by boat or ferry or we consume goods transported by cargo ships similar to the one I navigated in the simulator, marine safety has long been an important part of our nation’s health and welfare. Marine safety is a key aspect of the NTSB’s work to advance transportation safety, and I was happy to learn about how the MITAGS is contributing to safety through its training and research efforts.

Dr. T. Bella Dinh-Zarr is Vice Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Safely Share our Nation’s Waterways this Fourth of July

By Tracy Murrell

As boaters of all kinds and types crowd the waterways this Fourth of July to observe the night’s fireworks spectacle, keep in mind the other boaters around you. America’s waterways—which include commercially navigable ocean, coastal, and inland waters—have become increasingly more crowded over the past several decades. With commercial shipments of passengers and goods, recreational motorboats, personal watercraft, kayaks, and paddleboards all sharing our nation’s waterways, this growth in traffic presents challenges to the safe operation of all.

This will be no more evident than on the Fourth of July, where, for example, in the Chesapeake Bay off the coast of Maryland you could find both motorboat and cargo ship sitting side by side waiting for the familiar boom and clap of fireworks off the shoreline.

Dangerously close encounters between commercial vessels and recreational craft on shared waterways are becoming all too frequent. In fact, the US Coast Guard reports that, in 2014, seven people were killed and nine others were injured in 18 accidents involving a recreational craft and a commercial vessel.

This weekend, consider all the waterway users around you—whether they be small, non-motorized craft or large ships—and take proper safety precautions to share our waterways safely. Follow these tips:

  • Wear a life jacket at all times. Putting on a life jacket when you’re in the water is too late!
  • Don’t operate a vessel while impaired. Boating Under the Influence (BUI) continues to be leading contributor of fatal boating accidents.
  • Maintain safe boating speeds and observe “No Wake” zones.
  • Always have a designated lookout in place.
  • If you are using a kayak, canoe, paddleboard, or other human-powered watercraft, stay close to the shore, wear high visibility clothing, and travel in a single file at all times.
  • If you are operating a personal watercraft, avoid shipping channels, and stay clear of ships, water taxis, and commercial tugs and barges.


Tracy Murrell is the Director of the NTSB Office of Marine Safety.

Perfect Storm

By Rachel Smith

MITAGS Simulator (photo provided by MITAGS)
MITAGS Simulator (photo provided by MITAGS)

The “perfect storm” overcomes us. Our ship rocks back and forth. Fog sets in obscuring our vision of the passing ships. We navigate the channels based only on our radar and control systems. Panic is beginning to set in. But, then I remember, this is a simulation.

I relocated to Washington, DC to be a student trainee for the summer with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). I recently had the opportunity to visit the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS) campus in Baltimore, Maryland with NTSB’s Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr and Tracy Murrell, Director, Office of Marine Safety. MITAGS is a vocational training center for individuals seeking to enter the maritime profession and for professional mariners seeking to advance their careers. This visit was particularly special to me, because I am from Florida and have grown up around beautiful water ways and beaches. Marine safety is vital, because it helps to protect people, marine life, animals and our precious natural resources.

The technology MITAGS has available allows students to experience challenging scenarios in the safety of a classroom setting. The ship handling simulation scenario we experienced is one of many MITAGS can recreate to prepare their students. MITAGS’ staff showed us the inner workings of their simulations. In addition to the ship handling simulator, MITAGS also has a 300° tug simulator.

After a presentation about MITAGS we made our way to the ship handling simulator’s wheelhouse, and the environment suddenly began to change to mimic that of a ship. The narrow hallway leads to a steep staircase and soon the wheelhouse came into view. The wheelhouse is equipped with navigational technology that would be on a fully equipped ship. There is a small table to lay out navigational material, and even a reading lamp to account for the dim lighting. Every detail makes you feel as though you are sailing through, in our case, the Port of Baltimore.

Surrounding the wheelhouse is a nearly three story tall 360° screen, which the instructor controls from an adjacent room. The instructor has controls to adjust your location, the weather, ship length and the cargo you are carrying. The instructor is also able to control the ships that are sailing in your view. For an extra layer of challenge during our simulation, we were faced with a burning ship on our port side. To monitor the student’s progress, the instructor is also equipped with devices that show every action the student takes to maneuver and monitor the ship, as well as streaming video feed of the wheelhouse.

MITAGS combines high education standards with rigorous simulation exposure and assessment, to equip their students with the tools to safely and successfully navigate their maritime careers. With more than 120 courses, MITAGS allows for specialized training in various areas. They have courses covering a range of disciplines from upgrading to the Chief Mate or Master’s level, continuing education for Tug and Barge, and everything in between.

My experience in a controlled simulation was only a small glimpse at the challenges mariners can potentially face during their time at sea. Although, you may not be maneuvering a ship this summer, remember to be safe as you enjoy your summer time on the water. Always be prepared for inclement weather, because you never know when the “perfect storm” could set in.

Rachel Smith is an intern with the NTSB

A Perfect Day on the Water

By Tracy Murrell

Wear It LogoHere in DC, the weather this weekend is expected to be perfect, close to 80 degrees and sunny. For many around the county, perfect weather this weekend will mean getting out on the open water for the first ride or paddle of the season.

If you’re a motorboater, maybe you’ve been longing to hear the deep hum of the engine idling in the water turn to a smooth roar as you speed through the water. Or maybe you prefer the feeling of free floating as you skip across the water on a personal watercraft.

Perhaps you’re a kayaker or canoeist, and crave the intimate closeness to the elements, the feel of even the slightest change in wind and the sensation of every ripple on the surface. Maybe you’re a paddler, and love the calming feeling of your board gently rocking to the rhythm of the water.

Something deep within us draws us to the water. But whether you prefer to enjoy the seas, lakes, or rivers; it’s important to equip yourself with the right tools to help you survive in those environments when something goes wrong.

Wear It PosterThat’s where your common sense comes in: Wear a personal flotation device – a lifejacket. Whether you’re in a motorboat, a canoe, a kayak, or on a paddleboard, wearing a lifejacket significantly improves your safety on the water.

In 2014, 610 people died and more than 2,500 were injured in 4,064 recreational boating accidents. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 78% of the people who died in these accidents drowned, and 84% of those who drowned were not wearing lifejackets. That’s almost 400 people whose lives could have been saved by the simple act of putting on a lifejacket.

This week is National Safe Boating Week. Safety advocates across the U.S. and Canada are working together to promote safe and responsible boating. This week also marks the official launch of the 2015 North American Safe Boating Campaign, a yearlong campaign to promote safe recreational boating and use of lifejackets.

Be a responsible boater and obey the ways of the water. Always use a personal flotation device, and don’t boat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Don’t let a perfect day on the water turn into a preventable tragedy.

Tracy Murrell is the Director of the NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety

Deadly Addictions

NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt moderates roundtable on “Disconnect from Deadly Distractions,” held at the NTSB Boardroom and Conference Center.
NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt moderates roundtable on “Disconnect from Deadly Distractions,” held at the NTSB Boardroom and Conference Center.

By Robert Sumwalt

At the NTSB’s March 31 Roundtable — Disconnect from Deadly Distractions — an interesting discussion emerged about the “addictive” nature of staying connected through our personal electronic devices (PEDs). “There is nothing more interesting to the human brain than other people,” stated Dr. Paul Atchley. He explained that dopamine is one of the brain’s reward chemicals that produces positive feelings and sensations. “There is nothing more rewarding than the opportunity to talk to someone else,” said Dr. Atchley. Because connecting with others produces a release of dopamine into the brain’s midsection, it is very difficult for us to ignore the urge to connect with others.

Andrea Brands of AT&T followed-up on that point by mentioning a survey the company conducted last year through Dr. David Greenfield, founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. They found that 74% of the 1004 people surveyed admitted to engaging in texting or checking social media while driving. A large percentage of the survey respondents rationalized that behavior even though they knew it was dangerous — a true sign of addictive behavior, said Ms. Brands.

Dr. Greenfield stated in a November 2014 interview, “We compulsively check our phones because every time we get an update through text, email or social media, we experience an elevation of dopamine, which is a neurochemical in the brain that makes us feel happy. If that desire for a dopamine fix leads us to check our phones while we’re driving, a simple text can turn deadly.”

Whether we call it addictive, compulsive, or just a habit, the fact remains that using a PED while operating any vehicle is dangerous business. It can be deadly.

Nowhere was this fact more apparent than in the NTSB’s investigation of the August 5, 2010, multi-vehicle crash near Gray Summit, Missouri. In this accident, a 19-year-old pickup truck driver slammed into the back of a stopped tractor trailer, setting up a chain reaction crash involving two school buses following behind. In the thirteen minutes immediately before the crash, the 19-year-old driver sent and received 11 text messages on his phone. The tragic result of his choice to drive distracted was the loss not only of his own life, but also the life of a 15-year-old student aboard one of the buses.

The NTSB is very concerned with distractions in all modes of transportation. Please, give yourself the permission to disconnect from deadly distractions. Break the addiction, and save lives.

Distractions in Transportation: Roundtable of Experts and Advocates from all Transportation Modes Gather to Discuss Solutions

By Robert L. Sumwalt

Member Sumwalt speaking to panelists at the distraction roundtableToday begins distracted driving awareness month. To help kick off the month, yesterday, the NTSB hosted a multimodal roundtable called “Disconnect from Deadly Distractions.”

To view the round table session in its entirety, see the webcast.

Distractions come in all forms, ranging from rowdy kids in the back seat to using electronic devices to stay connected. We acknowledge the different forms of distraction, but decided to keep the roundtable focused on electronic distractions. And, while distracted driving awareness month deals primarily with driving distractions, we expanded the scope of the roundtable to include all modes of transportation. After all, the goal of the NTSB is to ensure safe transportation for all travelers, regardless of how they travel.

I was thrilled to facilitate the discussions. The real stars of the roundtable were the participants—a diverse group of about 40 safety experts, regulators, scientists, researchers, advocates, engineers, insurance representatives, industry, law enforcement, and victims of families. They came from the ranks of aviation, highway, marine, rail, and transit. They all shared their viewpoints about how best to disconnect from deadly distractions.

The specific objectives were to 1) raise awareness for the need to disconnect from deadly distractions by having a conversation that focuses on the multimodal aspects of distraction, 2) promote cultural change, 3) discuss how the various technologies can increase the potential for distractions, and 4) find solutions to reduce distraction.

Each week this month, I will blog about some element of deadly distractions. I look forward to hearing from you.

Meanwhile, I encourage you to disconnect from deadly distractions.