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Archive for Thursday, June 25, 2009

Transportation safety board urges changes but can’t require them

June 25, 2009

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Has the National Transportation Safety Board become the government’s “I-told-you-so” agency?

After this week’s deadly subway collision in Washington, board member Debbie Hersman pointed to safety recommendations the NTSB made years earlier to replace older subway cars, which might have saved lives — if they had been followed.

A commuter airliner crash near Buffalo, N.Y., on an icy February night killed 50 people and focused attention on recommendations by the board about flying in icy weather and pilot training, some more than a decade old, that the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to fully implement.

Overall, the board is still pressing federal, state and local government agencies responsible for planes, trains, ships, cars and trucks to fully implement 1,025 recommendations — which sometimes become prescient warnings — that emerge from its accident investigations. But the board can’t order safety changes.

“We are frustrated with recommendations that don’t get implemented,” said Elaine Weinstein, director of the board’s recommendations office. Acting board chairman Mark Rosenker wants to see regulators act faster: “Clearly, when we talk about a decade or more,” Rosenker said earlier this year, “that is an unreasonable amount of time.”

Three obstacles produce the inaction and delays: money, politics and technology.

Money includes both a lack of public funds and solutions so expensive that regulators and industry executives fear their cost would drive the price of service out of sight. Political will can include a philosophical aversion to government regulation, a tightfisted evaluation of costs versus benefits of any change or just a lack of public pressure. Finally, some board recommendations simply go beyond what existing technology can do.

Congress only gave the NTSB power to investigate accidents and recommend changes. When Congress completely separated the board from the regulatory agencies, it said the panel had to be independent so it could make “conclusions and recommendations that may be critical” of those agencies, if necessary.

Most of the board’s nearly 13,000 recommendations since it began work in 1967 are not languishing. More than four out of five have been implemented to the board’s satisfaction.

This work is reflected in everyone’s life: rules limiting alcohol drinking by pilots, ship captains and recreational boaters, truckers and train engineers; shoulder belts in the back seats of autos and state laws requiring life jackets for children in pleasure boats; not to mention thousands of mechanical and procedural changes to planes, trains, vehicles and ships that are invisible to most who use them.

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