Analysis: Americans left at risk as transportation safety fixes are delayed

NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said investigators arrived Wednesday at the scene of the Ted Stevens plane crash to examine the wreckage. She said her teams wanted to interview the four survivors but couldn't because of their medical conditions.
By Ryan Phillips and Aarti Shahani
News 21
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 7:02 PM

Americans are exposed every day to risks in highway, air, rail and water travel because of government delays in acting on recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents and proposes ways to prevent them.

The delays arise from a bureaucratic system that is convoluted and inefficient, according to an analysis of thousands of pages of documents, reports, and accident and investigation data from the NTSB and federal regulatory agencies.

For example, more than 710 people have died over the past 30 years in plane crashes in which ice built up on the wings of aircraft while the Federal Aviation Administration has considered NTSB recommendations to reduce icing dangers.

The Federal Railroad Administration took 36 years after the first NTSB recommendation to settle on a rail car design that gives passengers and workers a better chance of surviving crashes.

Twenty-four years passed before the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration required trucks to have anti-lock brakes recommended by the NTSB.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has yet to fully implement a 2002 recommendation to keep medically unfit bus and truck drivers off the roads. During that time, unfit bus and truck drivers have caused more than 800 fatal accidents.

From 2000 to 2010, the average time federal agencies, states and transportation industries took to implement NTSB recommendations stretched from just over three years to 5.4 years, according to an analysis by News21, a national university student reporting project, and the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization. The averages do not include the one-quarter of NTSB recommendations that are still pending or were closed because they were so outdated the board issued replacements or because the board gave up on them.

Federal agencies responsible for highway safety, including NHTSA and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, took the longest to comply with NTSB safety recommendations: an average of almost eight years. The FAA and aviation industry moved the fastest: an average of nearly four years.

The delays have many causes, the News21-Center for Public Integrity analysis found. Transportation industries and interest groups lobby against safety measures they fear will be expensive, intrusive or difficult to carry out. The federal rulemaking process is unwieldy and time-consuming. And as transportation technology becomes more complex, solutions cost more and take longer.

Transportation Department officials say they are working to clear backlogs and ease delays. Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari heads the department's new Safety Council, which has cleared more NTSB recommendations in 2010 than in any of the previous five years, according to the department.

Since 1967, the NTSB has been investigating transportation accidents and issuing recommendations ¿ mostly aimed at federal transportation agencies ¿ to prevent deaths and injuries on the ground, in the air and on the water. The board is independent of Congress and regulatory agencies, with five members appointed by the president for five-year terms. But it has no legal authority to force federal agencies, states or industries to implement its recommendations.

Abandoned efforts

Over the past 43 years, the NTSB has issued more than 13,000 recommendations to reduce accidents and fatalities. It has succeeded in influencing many transportation safety improvements, including child safety seats in cars, better lighting and signs on airport runways and new technologies to prevent trains from running into each other.

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