Tag Archives: Jennifer Homendy

World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

November 21 is the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims. It is a day to honor the 1.3 million lives lost each year around the world in motor vehicle crashes.

Today, I urge everyone to take a moment to remember all those who have lost loved ones in crashes, as millions have done around the world since 1995. Here in the United States, traffic deaths are up 18 percent over the first half of 2020. We are on pace to lose 40,000 Americans this year alone.

My thoughts are with all who have lost loved ones, but especially those I’ve met who lost loved ones in crashes that the NTSB has investigated, and the survivor advocates I’ve gotten to know over the years.

We need to remember these numbers are people from our communities. They are lives lost: mothers, fathers, or children suddenly, permanently gone; brothers and sisters absent from holiday gatherings; friends missing from a baby shower. We record our losses in data tables, but we feel them at the dinner table, and in the graduations, weddings, and birthdays never celebrated.

At a November 10 virtual roundtable on the need for our nation to transition to a Safe System approach, I called for a moment of silence in advance of the World Day of Remembrance. I said then that, for the NTSB, the toughest part of our job is facing family members after a tragedy, explaining that their loved one’s death was 100 percent preventable and that we’ve issued recommendations which, if acted upon, would have prevented the crash and the loss of their loved one.

Then I said that we need a paradigm shift in how we address this ever-growing public health crisis.

For 26 years now, the world has memorialized the victims of motor vehicle crashes, and we have been right to remember them. No loss should be forgotten. But these are unnecessary losses. They must not be remembered only in words.

They deserve and demand action now.

They demand to be remembered with road treatments, traffic calming measures, engineering speed assessments, road safety laws, and other investments that will result in safe roads and safe speeds on those roads.

They demand to be remembered with the manufacture of safe vehicles that should come standard with better technology for avoiding collisions, including collisions with pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists.

They must be remembered with vehicle sizes and shapes that are less likely to result in the pedestrian and bicyclist deaths that we have seen so often.

They demand to be remembered with ignition interlocks for all impaired drivers, in the development of in-vehicle alcohol detection technology, and in fair and just traffic law enforcement.

They demand to be memorialized with increased investments in alternative modes of transportation, like public transit, which will reduce crashes on our roads, in newly changed laws to improve road safety, and in the enforcement of existing laws.

But most of all, these victims should be remembered as what they were: flesh and blood. Human. Vulnerable.

Put that image at the center of all the other aspects of our roads, and you’ll see the road as we must in order to finally make it safe. Don’t think of numbers, think of people. Put them at the center of every decision about our road system. That’s the paradigm shift that we need—to make our many layers of traffic hazards into layers of traffic protection, so that when crashes happen, nobody pays for it with their life.

This Day of Remembrance, let’s remember that the candle we light to remember victims is more than just a memorial; it’s a light showing the way to a safer tomorrow.

Two-years Later: Conception Tragedy Still a Reminder that More Should Be Done to Improve Passenger Vessel Safety

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

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.

Preaccident photograph of the Conception (Source: http://www.seawaysboats.net)

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.

Small passenger vessel Conception at sunrise prior to sinking (Source: VCFD)

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.

We Can Do Big Things. Just Look at Positive Train Control

By Member Jennifer Homendy

After 50 years of investigation, advocacy, and persistence by the NTSB, positive train control (PTC) is now a reality across the country!

This video highlights the NTSB’s more than 50 year effort in investigating PTC-preventable accidents and advocacy for this life-saving technology.

PTC systems use GPS and other technology to prevent certain train collisions and derailments. It could have been lifesaving in the 154 rail accidents that have killed more than 300 people, and injured more than 6,800 passengers, crewmembers, and track workers in major accidents stretching across the nation, from Darien, Connecticut, in 1969, to Chatsworth, California, in 2008, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 2015, and DuPont, Washington, in 2017.

But let’s step back and marvel at this real achievement—and the effort it took. Safety improvements are never easy or quick. It took more than 50 years of advocacy by the NTSB and historic action by Congress to make PTC a reality. For many of these years, the NTSB was a lonely voice for safety, pushing for PTC despite opposition from railroads over the price tag and technological hurdles.

I know how tough the battle was because I was there. As staff director for the House subcommittee charged with overseeing rail safety, I played a role in ensuring that any effort to move legislation forward to improve rail safety included the NTSB’s recommendation to implement PTC. When I got to the NTSB, one of my priorities was to ensure that mandate was implemented.

It truly is remarkable in Washington to keep such clear focus on PTC across so many administrations, through so many changes in Congress and at the NTSB.

Earlier this month, I had the honor of moderating a panel of current and former NTSB leaders and staff who recalled the long, bumpy road to PTC implementation. NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt and former agency heads Chris Hart, Debbie Hersman, and Jim Hall recalled their own contributions and noted how remarkable the agency’s sheer persistence was in a time of short attention spans and quickly changing priorities.

It was so uplifting to hear their personal reflections of their time on the Board fighting for PTC, and their continued commitment to the agency and its critical safety mission. But it was the staff panel that really defined persistence. Generations of rail investigators and other staff worked every one of the 154 PTC-preventable accidents over the decades, launching to horrific crash scenes only to discover similarities pointing to the same solution: PTC. They spent holidays working. Missed birthdays and anniversaries. Completed their important jobs regardless of on-scene obstacles and personal priorities.

Recording of the January 14, 2021, NTSB live‑streamed discussion about Positive Train Control implementation.

The public doesn’t often see what goes on behind the scenes at accident investigations, after investigations are completed when recommendations need to be implemented, and the tremendous work required to keep those recommendations at the forefront of discussions to improve safety. As stated in the first panel, board members come and go, but it’s the staff that keep these critical safety issues alive. It was truly remarkable and heartwarming to hear their reflections of the agency’s work and how that work has impacted public safety, as well as how it affected them personally. I hope it gave the public a sense of what it takes to stay focused on an issue for five full decades.

Was it worth it? You bet. PTC will save lives.

Other safety improvements have also taken many years to implement. Midair collisions were dramatically reduced by the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). That took decades to put in place. Airliner fuel-tank inerting systems, which addressed fuel tank explosions like the one that brought down TWA Flight 800 in 1996, also took years. And let’s not forget about the long fight for airbags and seat belts in passenger vehicles. All these transportation safety improvements were strongly and relentlessly advocated for by the NTSB.

We can do big things in America. We can save more lives on our rails, in the sky, in communities where pipelines are located, on the water, and on the highway. But major safety improvements like PTC take time, money and, perhaps most of all, incredible perseverance.

Episode 38: Positive Train Control

In this episode of Behind-the-Scene @NTSB, we talk with Member Jennifer Homendy and Tim DePaepe, Railroad Accident Investigator, Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Investigations, about Positive Train Control (PTC), NTSB PTC-related investigations and recommendations and other rail safety issues.

Fully Implement Positive Train Control is on the NTSB 2019-2020 Most Wanted List.

Member Homendy’s full bio is available on our website.

For previous podcasts featuring Member Homendy and her blogs related to PTC visit our website.

The full Railroad Accident Reports mentioned during the podcast are also available on our website.

Get the latest episode on Apple Podcasts , on Google PlayStitcher, or your favorite podcast platform.

And find more ways to listen here: https://www.blubrry.com/behind_the_scene_ntsb/

It’s Past Time to Think About Cognitive Distraction

By Member Jennifer Homendy

When you think of common ways drivers are distracted on the road, you probably think of talking or texting on mobile devices, eating, reading, or perhaps even putting on makeup or shaving. It’s easy to recognize that these risky behaviors are distractions. There are even laws on the books in several states that ban these sorts of distractions—particularly hand-held mobile phone use—so drivers know better than to do these things while driving (even if they do them on occasion anyway). Hands-free mobile phone use, on the other hand . . . that’s okay, right?

Not so fast.

Distracted driving causes an alarming number of deaths and injuries on America’s roads each year, and it has proven to be a hard problem to solve. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration say that 2,800 people died because of distracted driving in 2018 alone. And distraction is particularly dangerous for vulnerable road users; 400 pedestrians and 77 bicyclists were killed that year.

The United States has made huge improvements in reducing the number of deaths seen on our roadways since the 1960s and 1970s, but, over the past decade, we’ve stagnated in lowering the number of fatalities even further. We’ve greatly improved vehicle and road safety as well as seatbelt law adherence, and we’ve cut drunk driving deaths in half. But distracted driving continues to be an ever-problematic issue on our nation’s roadways. Even my very own friends—knowing what I do for a living—have recently tried to have calls or video chats with me while they were driving! 

Although, like all safety issues, we need to address distracted driving awareness and prevention year round, for 1 month each year, advocates turn up the focus. That’s how critical it is to saving lives. Vice Chairman Landsberg recently wrote a blog in recognition of Distracted Driving Awareness Month. A few months ago, I wrote a blog about my own story of being in a crash caused by a distracted driver. I pointed out that, short of full cell phone bans, drivers can make hands-free calls through Bluetooth, which is still a cognitive distraction.

Why is that important?

A 2011 study detailed three types of distraction:

  • Visual (taking your eyes off the road),
  • Manual (taking your hands off the wheel to hold something, like food or a mobile device), and
  • Cognitive (those distractions that cause a driver to take his or her mind off the primary task of driving safely, like making hands-free calls or even stressing about an important meeting).

Even when your eyes are on the road, simple cognitive distractions can impair your driving performance and diminish your reaction time. Many people don’t realize that cognitive distractions while driving can be like driving while impaired—both reduce your ability to react.

Nearly a decade ago, the NTSB issued a recommendation to all 50 states and the District of Columbia, calling for a ban on all nonemergency use of portable electronic devices for all drivers, which would include prohibiting hands-free cell phone use. Ever since then, we have been advocating for states to ban cell phones while driving, and “Eliminate Distractions” has rightfully been on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements since 2013. Although 48 states have banned texting while driving, no state has banned hands-free cell phone use. 

The National Safety Council and AAA, along with others, remind us that hands-free isn’t risk free. We need to think about and address cognitive distraction and its harmful consequences. When we’re behind the wheel, let’s make sure we keep our families and our roads safe by focusing on the primary task at hand—driving safely.