Transportation safety: Efforts to curb fatigue-related accidents often languish

A News21 and Center for Public Integrity investigation of the country's transit systems found that federal agencies, states and transportation industries take an astounding average of a record-high five years to respond to safety recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board.
By Tessa Muggeridge and Charlie Litton
Monday, September 27, 2010; 2:51 AM

Accidents happen in a matter of seconds.

An airplane pilot takes a moment too long to react in an emergency. A trucker who has been on the road all day wanders across the median. A train engineer is lulled to sleep by the monotony of the job and misses a signal.

Fatigue can't be measured like the level of alcohol in a person's system, but it is frequently cited by investigators as a factor in accidents in the air, on the water and on railways and highways.

Over the past four decades, more than 320 fatigue-related incidents have taken nearly 750 lives in airplane crashes alone, 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.

Scientists, lawmakers, industry executives, safety advocates and operators themselves all say fatigue is an issue that needs more attention, but the regulatory process sometimes allows proposals to languish for decades.

The National Transportation Safety Board, created in 1967 to help safeguard U.S. travelers, has issued 138 fatigue-related safety recommendations since its inception. Only 68 have been implemented, according to the analysis.

Some of the proposals are still pending decades after they were issued. In other cases, the NTSB has simply given up.

"We need to quit talking about fatigue and we need to start trying to do something about it," said NTSB board member Robert L. Sumwalt, a former commercial pilot.

Transportation Department Deputy Secretary John Porcari, who heads the department's new Safety Council, said the Obama administration considers fatigue "an urgent safety priority." Its efforts include establishing new rules and expanding education efforts for truckers and proposing new rules for pilots.

"We are going to continue doing all that we can to make sure roads, skies and rails are as safe as possible for travelers," he said.

A problem in the air

Pilots, flight crews and air traffic controllers who report safety problems through an anonymous NASA database frequently mention fatigue as a problem.

Sumwalt said one in five reports submitted to the database is fatigue-related.

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