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Technology is changing transportation, but the NTSB is focused on safety, outgoing chairman says

Robert L. Sumwalt, a former airline pilot, will leave the board at the end of June after nearly 15 years

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt testifies in 2019 during a Senate committee hearing on aviation safety. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Not many high school seniors may be inspired to take flying lessons after visiting the scene of a plane crash, or spend their free time in college combing through accident reports by National Transportation Safety Board investigators. But Robert L. Sumwalt, who is stepping down as NTSB chairman at the end of this month, said he became curious at a young age about how such systems operate and what could be done to make them safer.

Sumwalt, a former airline pilot, was appointed to the NTSB in 2006 by President George W. Bush. He has been the board’s on-scene representative at 36 accidents, including the 2015 crash of an Amtrak train outside Philadelphia and the 2018 emergency landing of a Southwest Airlines plane that lost one of its engines, killing one person after debris shattered a window.

In an interview reflecting on his tenure, Sumwalt said the NTSB’s investigations and recommendations have increased safety across transportation systems, ranging from planes to subways to pipelines. He said the agency must stay on top of new technology, including self-driving cars, to ensure they are safe for the public. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did you become interested in aviation?

A: I had always had a fascination with airplanes, and I mean, who doesn’t have a fascination with airplanes? But when I was 17 years old — I would say it was during our Christmas break during high school — I heard on the car radio that there had been a plane crash at the local airport. So I thought, I’d like to go see that. And so, you know, I figured out where the plane crashed. And there I was on the scene of a fatal accident. I thought a lot about that plane crash over the next few days and the next few weeks. Once we got back into school, I took a friend of mine out to where the plane had crashed. Now, this is the part that’s a little fuzzy, which actually makes no sense at all. But perhaps if you were 17, you can understand it. On the way home from seeing where this plane had crashed and where people have died, what did you do? Well, naturally, you go by the airport, sign up for flying lessons, and that’s how it started for me. I literally got started into aviation by accident. In college, I would go to the government library and read aircraft accident reports and sort of had this secret dream that one day I’d like to be a part of the NTSB.

Q: How would you describe the mission of the National Transportation Safety Board?

A: We are an independent federal agency charged by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, determine the probable cause and issue safety recommendations to prevent the reoccurrence. And that’s what we really are.

Q: How important is the agency’s independence in doing these investigations?

A: It is extremely important. And as you know, we were formed in 1967, and in 1974, Congress passed the Independent Safety Board Act of 1974, which pulled us and completely severed all ties to the [Department of Transportation]. And that independence is something that we need to guard and fiercely protect. If we want to do the right things for the right reasons, we don’t want to necessarily phone up the hill and say: ‘Ooh, we’re thinking about doing this. What do you think about that?’ We don’t want to be aloof. We want various opinions. But at the end of the day, it should be us making the decisions based on what’s best for the transportation sector.

Q: There has been a lot of innovation in the transportation space, for example, autonomous vehicles. What impact do you think these changes will have on safety?

A: Autonomous vehicles do have the potential to change the world. Literally you see across the world, over 1 million people each year die in highway-related accidents. In this country, as you know, somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 people die and many more are seriously injured. So I think that there is great promise [for] autonomous vehicles. But they have to be done properly. Just because you can automate something doesn’t mean you should. [Manufacturers] need to slow down a little bit and make sure that what they’re doing truly has a safety payback and that they’re minimizing the risk in the process of innovating.

Q: During your time on the board, there were at least two fatal incidents on Metro. I remember you expressing frustration with that agency and the pace of reform. I’m curious about your thoughts on its safety culture and what more it needs to do?

A: The 2009 crash for WMATA at Fort Totten claimed nine lives and injured more than 100. It was a very, very tragic accident. And then we find that a few years later, that the things that we pointed out in the 2009 investigation were still prevalent when we had the smoke event that claimed Carol Glover’s life at L’Enfant Plaza. It’s just really unfortunate. It’s tragic when an organization doesn’t learn from their mistakes. Not that we’ve been involved in it, but the [Washington Metrorail Safety Commission] has uncovered, has continued to find problems with the [Rail Operations Control Center]. The truth of the matter is, fortunately, people usually get it, organizations usually get it after a tragic event. Most of the time organizations do get it. But here’s a case where WMATA appears to still be suffering, struggling with getting some of these problems straightened out.

(In response to Sumwalt’s comments, Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta said the transit agency’s “maturing safety culture” is evidenced by an overhaul of its Rail Operations Control Center and safety-focused reforms, such as the SafeTrack campaign. He said new Metro leadership also has improved training and oversight. “The region’s commitment to historic dedicated funding has resulted in a $2 billion capital program of annual investment in safety and reliability improvements to the system which has led to the acceleration of safety-critical work on tunnel ventilation, communications systems, platform reconstruction, and more,” Jannetta said.)

Q: How did the pandemic impact the NTSB’s work?

A: We did continue to carry out our mission. I mean, what we found is that it is certainly true that we did not go on scene to as many crashes as we typically would. But as a result of not doing that, we cleared out a lot of backlogs. For example, our [Freedom of Information Act] backlog — we reduced our FOIA backlog by something like 85 percent. We increased our report completion. And so we were very productive. People should understand though that just because we don’t go on scene doesn’t mean that we [weren’t] investigating. We can get the data from the air traffic control or from Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast. We can request the pilot records from the FAA. We can get all of that. So I think in many cases we can still get a lot done without going on scene.

Q: Do you have concerns about road safety, in particular, coming out of the pandemic?

A: Yes, certainly we have concerns about road safety. We had figures come out [recently] that showed that although vehicle road-miles traveled were down, accidents, crashes, roadside fatalities were up. … It’s going in the wrong direction. The pandemic itself was bad enough and the lives claimed directly due to the virus. It’s even more unfortunate that we have an increase in road fatalities during the same period.

Q: Is there anything that you think is unfinished? What do you see going forward for the NTSB?

A: There are a number of safety issues that need to be done. And as far as the agency itself, I feel like we’re leaving the agency in a really good position with the management team that we put in place. I think we built the foundation for the agency to be stronger. One of the things that we’re working on is the timeliness of reports. You know there’s always that tension between, how fast can we get it done and do we sacrifice quality? So we put in place measures to try to use data to see where the bottlenecks are and address those. We’ve got accountability and better tracking systems so we can track the progress of each investigation. So I think we’ve put in place measures to help the agency to be more effective and more efficient.

Justin George contributed to this report.