Keeping a Close Eye on Close Calls

By Debbie Hersman

Image of several planes near each other in flight
TCAS warns flight crews about a possible collision in the air.

We are hearing a lot this week about the loss of separation between an Air National Guard Boeing 737, with First Lady Michelle Obama on board, and a military cargo plane near Andrews AFB. Fortunately, the error was caught, and corrections were made to prevent the 737 from encountering wake vortices from the cargo plane. Last January, a significant loss of separation occurred between a Boeing 777 bound for Brazil and two military C-17s just outside New York. At their closest, the aircraft were only separated by one mile.

“Loss of separation” occurs when the space — vertically or horizontally — between two airborne aircraft falls below the minimum allowable. Modern commercial and military aircraft are equipped with collision avoidance alerts from their Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System, or “TCAS.” These alarms sound inside the cockpit to warn flight crews about a possible collision in the air. The vast majority of these conflicts are resolved quickly, and passengers are never even aware of the event. Once in a while, the conflict is more serious and an aircraft must take sudden evasive action.

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Call Before You Dig

By Debbie Hersman

Always call 811 before you dig.

Did you know to call 811 before you begin any excavation project — for example, before planting a tree, installing a mailbox, or building a deck? The reason: To protect you from hitting underground utility lines.

This is important. Damage to underground lines is a leading cause of pipeline accidents. While pipelines are a very safe mode of transportation, there has been a spate of recent accidents across the country in the last year. The NTSB currently has five active pipeline accident investigations.

We’ve seen from recent tragic accidents in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and San Bruno, California, that pipeline accidents can be deadly. The Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is addressing the state of the nation’s pipeline infrastructure, is holding a Pipeline Safety Forum today. I moderated this morning’s panel, which addressed, “What Are the Highest Pipeline Risks?”

As Richard Worsinger, president of the American Public Gas Association said, “Excavation damage is a main concern.” That sentiment was echoed by other panelists who agree public education is essential.

To support public education, April has been designated National Safe Digging Month. To learn more about calling 811, check out

Lifeboats and Life Jackets

By Debbie Hersman

Lifeboat from the Titanic, as seen from the RMS Carpathia

Ninety-nine years ago today, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic. While 700 people survived, some 1,500 passengers and crew members were left behind to perish at sea. In that iconic accident, the heart of the tragedy was that there were not enough lifeboats for the passengers.

From my office in Southwest Washington, DC, if I look due south I can see Washington Channel Park where the Women’s Titanic Memorial is located. This is a memorial dedicated “to the brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic … they gave their lives that women and children might be saved.”

Over the past century, numerous improvements, including international regulations (Safety of Life at Sea Convention) for stability, watertight integrity, and lifesaving equipment for all persons on board have made merchant vessels safer.

Here in the United States, commercial safety on our inland waterways is improving, but, tragically, there are still many accidents in recreational boating. The U.S. Coast Guard reports that in 2009, 736 people died and 3,358 were injured in recreational boating accidents. Of those fatalities, about three-fourths were from drowning. Many of these could have been prevented. In those fatality statistics is the hard fact that 85 percent of the people who drowned were not wearing life jackets.

I applaud the resolution the National Boating Safety Advisory Council issued earlier this month calling for the U.S. Coast Guard to mandate wearing life jackets in certain segments of the boating community.

The next time you go boating, take some precautions so that the women and children — and everyone — onboard might be saved if calamity strikes. Make sure there are enough life jackets for everyone on board. Better yet, wear them.

Celebrating Volunteers and Supporting our Troops

By Debbie Hersman

This is National Volunteer Week, a time to celebrate what we all can accomplish through service and the stronger communities we build when we take time to help others. As President Obama said when he proclaimed April 10-16, 2011, as National Volunteer Week,

“During National Volunteer Week, we celebrate the profound impact of volunteers and encourage all Americans to discover their own power to make a difference. Every one of us has a role to play in making our communities and our country stronger.”

Chairman Hersman dines with soldiers at Walter Reed

In that spirit, yesterday employees from the NTSB hosted our annual Walter Reed Army Medical Center Volunteer Dinner. Our employees collected books for the Walter Reed library, donated nearly a $1,000 worth of gift cards to give to service members, and provided homemade meals for the service members and family members who attended the dinner. I especially enjoyed having the opportunity to greet each guest and join my colleagues in thanking our servicemen and their families for their sacrifices and service to our country.

Eyes on the Road, Hands on the Wheel

By Debbie Hersman

There’s a great article by health writer Jane E. Brody in the April 12 issue of The New York Times about medical doctors spreading the word about the dangers of distracted driving. Brody quotes Dr. Amy N. Ship of Harvard Medical School who says, “Driving while distracted is roughly equivalent to driving drunk.”

Last year, nearly 33,000 people died in traffic accidents. As Dr. Ship explained, “Any activity that distracts a driver visually or cognitively increases the risk of an accident.”

Distracted driving has long been a priority issue for the NTSB. This is an especially crucial issue for young drivers: Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens. In 2003, we placed a recommendation on our Most Wanted List asking states to restrict the use of wireless devices by novice drivers.

NTSB poster highlights agency policy on distracted driving

Knowing the most effective teacher is modeling the behavior you want to see, on the day I was sworn in as NTSB Chairman I implemented an agency policy to curb the use of electronic devices while driving. The policy prohibits employees driving on NTSB business from using any wireless device, including hands-free devices, and further prohibits using NTSB-issued electronic devices while driving their own cars.

The rules apply to me. I no longer use my Blackberry during my hour-long commute. The risk of catastrophic consequences is just too great. As Brody cited in the article, “The National Safety Council estimates that at least 1.6 million crashes — 28 percent of the total — are caused each year by drivers using cellphones or texting.”

Pull over if you need to make or take a call. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, “The life you save may be your own.”

Fatigue is a Serious Safety Issue

By Mark Rosekind, Ph.D.

Fatigue was cited as a Probable Cause to this accident in Miami, OK

Fatigue has been on the NTSB Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements since the List was first created in 1990. The NTSB has identified fatigue as the probable cause or a contributing factor of accidents in every mode of transportation. Based on its accident investigations, the NTSB has made more than 190 fatigue-related safety recommendations. One recent accident illustrates how fatigue can lead to tragedy.

On June 26, 2009, in Miami, Oklahoma, a commercial truck driver going 69 mph with his cruise control on ran into a line of vehicles that had stopped due to another accident. Before the truck finally stopped, it hit 6 vehicles, took 10 lives, and injured 5 more.

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You don’t have to fly for a living to be a professional

By Earl Weener

NTSB Board Member Earl Weener

Domestic airline operators have racked up a remarkable safety record  in the past two years.  Large commercial transport aircraft experienced not a single fatal accident during this period – a welcome trend for commercial operations.  I wish I could say the same for general aviation (GA).  Sadly, in the recent ten day period from March 25th through April 3rd, ten fatal accidents occured involving GA light airplanes, ranging from a Cessna 150 to a Beechcraft Baron.  That’s a rate of an accident per day, and just reflects the fatal accidents.  Generally, there are five to six times as many accidents that do not involve fatalities but result in substantial damage or injuries, or both.

A soon-to-be-released NTSB statistical study of aircraft accidents from 2007 through 2009 will show the accident rate for Part 91 flying as essentially flat from 2000 through 2009.  There were approximately 6 accidents per 100,000 flight hours, with about 1 in 6 of those accidents involving fatalities.  This statistic includes both corporate and on-demand air taxi operations, which have accident rates approaching those of the commercial airlines.  These operators, like the commercial operators, are to be congratulated on their safety record.  However, as I pointed out, this is not the case for all Part 91 operations.

Continue reading You don’t have to fly for a living to be a professional

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