Improving Pipeline Safety

By Debbie Hersman

This morning, NTSB Board Member Mark Rosekind and I visited the neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif., where a natural gas pipeline ruptured on Sept. 9, 2010.  The released natural gas ignited and resulted in a massive fire. Eight people died, ten more were injured, and 38 homes were destroyed.

Chairman Hersman (in red), Congresswoman Speier (in blue) and Member Rosekind (second from right) visit the accident site.

Our team is working hard to complete the investigation and present their final report at a board meeting prior to the one-year anniversary of the accident.  Because thorough investigations of major accidents like the one in San Bruno can take a year or more to accomplish, the NTSB does not always wait until it completes investigations to issue safety recommendations.  In fact, last January, we issued urgent safety recommendations to ensure that the records, surveys, and documents for all pipeline systems accurately reflect the infrastructure.  Further, we issued recommendations addressing the need for hydrostatic testing to detemine safe operating pressures on lines without accurate records.

Today, the NTSB is issuing three additional safety recommendations — two to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and one to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E).  These new recommendations focus on informing emergency response agencies about pipeline locations and important operating information in advance and notifying emergency responders promptly when a leak is detected.  We heard loudly and clearly at our March fact-finding hearing that many local officials in San Bruno did not know that transmission lines ran through the middle of neighborhoods.

Implementing these recommendations will help assure a timelier and more appropriate response to accidents in the future.

This visit to San Bruno has been a poignant reminder that our role — and our commitment — at the NTSB is to do everything we can to make sure a tragedy like this one, and the devastating losses it caused, never happens again.

Make a Splash – Stay Afloat this Summer!

By Debbie Hersman

NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman and NTSB staffer Bill Gossard examine an inflatable swim t-shirt is called a “Sea-Tee”.
NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman and NTSB staffer Bill Gossard examine an inflatable swim t-shirt is called a “Sea-Tee”.

It is June, schools are letting out for the summer and kids are looking forward to visits to the nation’s beaches, lakes and rivers. Today, I was able attend a great event for kids and discuss staying safe on the water. Living Classroom, a non-profit educational organization, brought 300 students to the National Harbor, in Prince George’s County Maryland, for a morning of fishing and fun. For many of these kids, this was their first time on a boat, so it was a great chance to educate them about boating safety.

For decades, the NTSB has stressed the importance of all boaters, especially children, wearing a life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD) when engaging in boating activities. Today Virginia and Wisconsin are the only two states in the country that do not have any laws requiring PFD use for kids. During the bass tournament awards presentation, I talked to the young anglers about the sobering statistics – in 2009 about 700 people died in boating accidents. Unfortunately, we’ve investigated too many accidents, like the Taki-Too, that demonstrate that drowning deaths are preventable and chances of survival are improved if PFDs are worn.

Continue reading Make a Splash – Stay Afloat this Summer!

The Urgent Need for Safer Bus Transportation

By Robert Sumwalt

I-95 bus accident
Photo Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Once again bus transportation is tragically in the news. Early on Tuesday morning, a motorcoach crashed near Doswell, Virginia. The motorcoach was traveling from North Carolina to New York City on I-95 when it crashed at about 4:55 a.m. There were four fatalities and a number of people are being treated for mild to serious injuries.

The NTSB launched a Go-Team to investigate the crash. Peter Kotowski is Investigator-in-Charge. Board Member Earl Weener accompanied the team to serve as NTSB’s principal spokesman during the on-scene phase of the investigation.

This accident follows on the heels of three other East Coast motorcoach accidents. These accidents — in New York City, New Jersey, and New Hampshire — claimed 17 lives and injured 87 people. The NTSB is investigating the March 12 fatal accident on I-95 in the Bronx and we are reviewing the safety performance of the companies whose motorcoaches crashed in New Jersey on March 14 and in New Hampshire on March 22.

The NTSB has issued many motorcoach safety recommendations based on our accident investigations. Three of those issues are on our Most Wanted List:

Improved occupant protection – including stronger roofs, window emergency exit redesign, and standards for passenger seating compartments.

Better Government oversight of operators – to ensure that both the operational status of vehicles and their drivers are safe.

Implementing advanced vehicle technologies – to prevent accidents from occurring in the first place, including lane-departure warning, electronic stability control, and forward-collision warning systems.

Unfortunately, there has been no sense of urgency on these recommendations, some of which are nearly ten years old. The result? We continue to investigate accidents where the same things happen.

Last month, I chaired an NTSB public forum to review motorcoach and truck safety. As I said then, clearly, progress has been made in improving highway safety since the Board last held a motor carrier forum in 1999. But, there is much more work to be done to avoid tragic accidents such as the one on Tuesday morning in Virginia.


Member Robert Sumwalt Robert L. Sumwalt has been a Member of the NTSB since 2006. He is a frequent contributor to the blog.

Buckle Up for Safety

By Earl Weener

Click It or TicketWith the start of the summer driving season soon upon us, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is once again kicking off its annual Click It or Ticket campaign to coincide with the Memorial Day holiday period, May 23 through June 5.  Begun in 1993, this campaign is now a national mobilization effort to encourage the use of seat belts as a way of reducing highway fatalities.   

What surprises me is the continued need for such a campaign.  Seat belts have been around since the 1950s, yet nearly one in six Americans still fail to regularly use one when motoring. In fact, with a use rate of approximately 85%, the U.S. trails other industrialized countries, such as Australia and Canada where rates stand at well over 90%.

From my work at the NTSB, I know motor vehicle crashes are responsible for more deaths annually in the U.S., than in all other transportation modes combined. Yet, one of the greatest defenses to this risk, and also the simplest thing to do, is put on a seat belt when you climb into a vehicle.  Since 1975, NHTSA estimates that over 267,000 lives have been saved due to seat belt use.

As an airplane pilot, I would never consider flying without wearing my seat belt.  The forces experienced during turbulence, in hard landings, or during a survivable crash are simply too significant for the body to manage without a restraint.  As an engineer, I know the laws of physics don’t change when I get into a car, truck or SUV, so I never drive my car without wearing a seat belt either.  Bottom line:  Seat belts have a proven track record, so be safe and buckle up!


Honorable Earl F. WeenerEarl F. Weener, Ph.D., took the oath of office as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on June 30, 2010. Dr. Weener is a licensed pilot and flight instructor who has dedicated his entire career to the field of aviation safety.

Improving Safety for our First Responders

By Debbie Hersman

NMSP Helicopter

This week the Board met to consider the June 9, 2009, crash involving a New Mexico State Police (NMSP) helicopter conducting a search and rescue mission outside Santa Fe. The pilot and the lost hiker who was rescued both died and the spotter was injured in the accident. The investigation determined the pilot made inappropriate decisions in an increasingly risky situation. Just as importantly, the investigation uncovered an organizational culture that failed to prioritize safety over accomplishing the mission and permitted unnecessary risk.

That accident was two years ago. Since then the NMSP and its personnel have persevered through a difficult and trying time, responding positively to the lessons learned from this tragedy, and making many changes to improve their procedures and culture.

Here are some of the improvements NMSP has already made:

  • Incorporating the Airborne Law Enforcement Association standards
  • Implementing a Safety Management System approach to operations
  • Equipping their new helicopter with improved radios and flight tracking equipment
  • Instituting a Tactical Flight Officer program
  • Increasing pilot staffing
  • Equipping their aircrew with survival vests and personal locator beacons

And the list goes on. I commend the leadership and staff of the NMSP for their responsiveness and commitment to embrace these necessary changes.  I hope that the lessons learned from this accident are recognized by others that conduct similar operations.  At the NTSB, we recognize the important work of search and rescue teams across the nation — our goal is to make sure that everyone gets back safely, especially the men and women charged with conducting these important missions.

Helping Motorists Stay Safe over Memorial Day Weekend

By Debbie Hersman

Travel safely this holiday weekend.

The AAA projects 24 million Americans will be traveling 50 or more miles from home during the upcoming Memorial Day holiday weekend.  The overwhelming majority will be traveling by automobile. Here’s what some young people are doing to help ensure drivers arrive at their destinations safely.

But, first, some background:  When the NTSB hosted “Take our Daughters and Sons to Work Day” two years ago, then-member Kitty Higgins and I joined four young people for lunch. We learned that all four were Scouts — one was an Eagle Scout and the other three — all girls — were Boy Scouts. That surprised us!  The girls explained that they were Venturers from a Germantown-Clarksburg, Md., Venturing Crew. (Venturing is a Boy Scouts of America co-ed program for youth aged 13 to 20.)  As we talked about scouting and service projects, I challenged the group to take on projects that could help improve transportation safety. 

Continue reading Helping Motorists Stay Safe over Memorial Day Weekend

Attention Pilots: The Importance of Contingency Planning

By Earl Weener

Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT)
An Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) can make the difference between life and death.

When I tell people about my work, I’m frequently asked about airline safety. Many recall major NTSB investigations, such as the TWA Flight 800 crash off Long Island, the American Airlines Flight 587 crash in New York City, or more recently, the Continental Flight 3407 accident outside Buffalo. Such tragedies — with their large loss of life — leave lasting impressions. Yet, most of the hundreds of aviation-related deaths each year occur in general aviation (GA) accidents.

GA is the term for flying that is neither airlines nor military. It includes a wide variety of aircraft, such as single-engine planes, floatplanes, helicopters, and business jets and turboprops. These usually smaller aircraft are often used for leisure trips, business trips, sightseeing, agricultural applications, emergency medical purposes, flight training, search and rescue, traffic reporting and many other uses. The pilots range from professionals earning a living flying to individuals with simply a passion for flying.

Continue reading Attention Pilots: The Importance of Contingency Planning

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