Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Bookmark and Share this page


Transportation: Investing in the Future, The City Club of Cleveland, Cleveland, Ohio
Deborah A. P. Hersman
Transportation:  Investing in the Future, The City Club of Cleveland, Cleveland, Ohio

Thank you, for that gracious introduction. It is an honor to speak here at The City Club of Cleveland. And, thank you all, for braving traffic and crowds to hear a Washington insider speak, when I know there is a better-known Washington insider, the President of the United States, speaking about 15 blocks away.

It is a thrill to be in the great city of Cleveland. Did you know that Cleveland had the nation's first traffic light? Cleveland also had the first pedestrian crossing button.

Today, as you might expect I will talk about transportation safety. I'll outline the challenges that have been overcome when safety prevailed and changes were made, and highlight the challenges ahead to build a stronger and safer future.

And, in this major transportation center, with every mode — highway, aviation, rail, transit, maritime, and those ubiquitous pipelines — Cleveland is the perfect place to make the case for investing in transportation's future.

There's always more work to be done. For example, in Ohio there are dozens of bridge projects, including the I-90 innerbelt bridge here in downtown Cleveland. In fact, according to the Federal Highway Administration, one in eight of the nation's 600,000 bridges is in need of repair or replacement.

Some of you may recall the 1967 Silver Bridge collapse over the Ohio River. It was about five o'clock — rush hour — on a Friday afternoon in December when the 39-year-old bridge began collapsing. Within a minute, the entire structure collapsed — plunging 31 cars into the frigid river and onto the shorelines in both Ohio and West Virginia.

Forty-six people died, nine were seriously injured and a major transportation route was destroyed — disrupting lives and commerce and striking fear across the nation.

President Johnson established a task force on bridge safety and the newly created National Transportation Safety Board began one of its first investigations. An independent federal agency, the NTSB had been established that very year to investigate transportation accidents, determine their probable cause and issue recommendations to improve safety.

After a lengthy investigation, the NTSB identified the cause of the collapse: the failure of a crucial component, a flaw unseen during visual inspections.

Recommendations from our investigation prompted the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop bridge inspection standards as well as national bridge safety programs.

Fast forward to today, 45 years after the Silver Bridge collapse. The replacement bridge, the Silver Memorial Bridge that opened two years to the day after the 1967 collapse, is now older than its failed predecessor.

Design and construction decisions across transportation are not just about what works today; it's also about taking the long view and making decisions that protect individuals and provide benefits for the larger community.

Indulge me, if you will, while I use a sports metaphor to emphasize my point about investing in the short term versus the long term.

Now, Indians fans may know about Washington's baseball phenom — pitcher Stephen Strasburg, whose first major league road start two years ago was here in Cleveland.

Two months after that game, Strasburg had Tommy John surgery. He came back late last season. Ever since, his pitches have been closely monitored.

As baseball fans know, the Nationals, who clinched their division on Monday, were competitive this season for the first time since, well, since the first Silver Bridge was built.

Yes, Strasburg's pitching was key. But, he pitched his last game on September 7. He was healthy, felt he could still pitch, but the team leadership shut him down at the height of a pennant race — not for the short-term gain they might achieve, but for his, and the team's, long-term health and success.

While it may have been a controversial call, it was a leadership call. And, that's the lesson to learn from the Washington Nationals organization: leadership means taking a stand and making decisions for long-term health and success, regardless of the competing pressures for immediate gratification, which is a big part of our culture.

Investing in the future is hard. Taking a thoughtful and strategic long-term view — that's what U.S. transportation needs.

So what does the NTSB, one of the smallest federal agencies — 400 people you may never know — have to do with you?

And, what do our engineers, human factors experts and safety advocates have to do with investing in the future?

Here's the "Cliff Notes" answer: A lot.

The NTSB has conducted 150,000 investigations in the last 45 years. From those investigations, we identified key issues and worked to overcome resistance to making the needed changes so that safety could prevail.

It's important to remember that every accident is a tragedy; every safety investment has a story. Behind each improvement are the names and faces of lives lived and lives lost. Like the 46 men, women and children who perished in the Silver Bridge collapse.

Since 1967, when the NTSB was established, about two million people have perished in U.S. transportation accidents.

Two million: That's the equivalent of the total residents in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo and Akron.

What have we learned from those two million tragedies?

Let's start with commercial aviation. In 1967, aviation was a fairly exclusive form of transportation.

Today, air travel is mass transportation, carrying more than 730 million passengers annually. But, more to the point, the airlines are in an unprecedented period of safety. There has not been a U.S. air carrier crash for more than three-and-a-half years.

But, that doesn't mean we haven't gotten close. Look at the so-called "Miracle on the Hudson." We all remember that iconic image of passengers standing on the Airbus wings waiting to be rescued.

That was no miracle. That successful outcome in the Hudson was the direct result of a highly trained and skilled flight crew, well-designed aircraft, effective emergency evacuation procedures and so much more. Just like many other instances where passengers walked away.

Who can recall the incident in Denver in December 2008 that was hailed as the "Christmas miracle?" A 737 veered off the runway, hit a 40-foot ravine and caught fire. All 115 onboard survived. Likewise, after an excursion in Toronto, the plane was destroyed, but all passengers survived.

Those lives saved — and so many more — can be traced to years of accident investigations, safety recommendations and overcoming resistance.

Overcoming naysayers who said it couldn't be done, it wouldn't work or it would be too expensive.

But, safety prevailed. Changes were made.

As a result of our investigations there is now technology that helps prevent what had been the number one cause of airplane crashes — pilots flying perfectly good airplanes into mountains or the ground, something the experts call controlled flight into terrain, or CFIT. And, with Doppler radar, aircraft now fly more safely in all kinds of weather. Traffic collision alerting systems, or TCAS, have helped eliminate mid-air collisions for transport category aircraft.

As we saw in New York, Denver and Toronto, accidents are far more survivable. These "miracles" are thanks to post-investigation improvements, such as ensuring flight attendants are properly trained and improved aircraft crashworthiness measures. There are also fire-blocking seats and escape path lighting, to name just a few.

All of these required overcoming resistance. But, safety prevailed and changes were made. Improvements that today are largely invisible to the average traveler and mostly taken for granted.

So, as aviation professionals will tell you, truthfully, your drive to the airport can be more dangerous part of your trip.

But, that drive is much safer than it was in 1967 — safety that came from tragedy, from learning and from investment.

A generation ago, a church group from Carrollton, Kentucky, was returning from Kings Island near Cincinnati when a drunk driver crossed the highway and collided with their school bus, killing 27 and injuring dozens more.

The crash's severity was worsened by a fire that engulfed the bus and the occupants' inability to escape the inferno.

From that investigation the NTSB recommended improved construction standards, enhanced emergency egress and better occupant protection. Now, school buses are by far the safest way for your children and my three sons to get to and from school.

In student transportation today, just 1 percent of fatalities occur on school buses compared with more than 50 percent when traveling with a teen driver and 25 percent when riding with an adult.

During my time at the NTSB, I was involved with the investigation of the 2007 accident that killed five members of the Bluffton University baseball team along with the bus driver and his wife. On the way to a Florida tournament, the bus crashed in Atlanta. A significant factor in the accident's severity was the bus's poor occupant protection.

At the conclusion of our investigation, John Betts, father of David Betts, one of the players who died, came to our board meeting. He listened to our recommendations and vowed to improve bus safety.

And he did.

He talked with the media, worked with legislators in Washington and attended congressional hearings.

Earlier this year, a number of bus safety provisions, sponsored by Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, were signed into law requiring enhanced occupant protection, including crush-resistant roofs and anti-ejection windows — all long recommended by the NTSB.

Once again, safety prevailed and changes were made. No other family should go through what John Betts and the Bluffton families endured.

What about transit, another growing and important form of transportation?

On a warm summer afternoon in 2009, two Metro trains in Washington, DC, collided, killing nine and injuring dozens more. The train-detection system that failed that afternoon was designed during Metrorail's original construction in the early 1970s. But, the Washington transit authority had put off upgrading its system. It had also deferred replacing the oldest cars in the fleet, which we had recommended after an earlier accident. The leadership did not address aging infrastructure and invest in Metro's future.

It took the 2009 tragedy — nine lives and intense public scrutiny — for safety to prevail and changes to be made.

The lessons learned in Washington apply to all our nation's transit systems. In accident after accident, we saw the need for minimum crashworthiness standards that exist in every other transportation mode. On Monday, a new law went into effect giving the U.S. Department of Transportation authority to set minimum national transit standards.

Safety prevailed. Changes were made.

What about all the cars on our roadways? The one you drive; the minivan I drive. Today, we may take for granted seat belts, smart airbag technology, rear high-mounted brake lights and so much more. But, these advances have all been accomplished one accident at a time.

They, too, required overcoming resistance but also needed people to do things differently, including changing cultural norms, like wearing seatbelts, designating a driver and using child safety seats.

When I was growing up, there were no child safety seats. When we visited relatives in West Virginia we weren't restrained riding in our old Ford LTD wood-paneled station wagon. I remember one time my dad, a pilot, hit a dog that ran across the road. My sister Val and I were upset as we saw the dog limp away. We asked Dad why he didn't stop before he hit the dog.

Today, I understand just how quick those fighter-pilot decision-making skills were. After he found the dog's owner, he explained to us that he made a choice between the dog and Michelle, our toddler sister, who was perched on the armrest in the front seat between my parents.

Now, I'm a certified child safety technician and my three sons have been safely restrained during every car ride since the day they left the hospital. Parents today don't have to choose between their child's safety and emergency braking.

Yes, a lot has changed since 1967.

The year the NTSB began working there were some 47,000 fatalities on our roads. Now, 45 years later with more cars on the road being driven more miles that number is still too high: 31,000 fatalities last year.

I've talked about the challenges we faced over the past 45 years and how resistance was overcome and safety prevailed.

What lies ahead? What are the challenges for the next 45 years?

I see three big ones: distraction, aging infrastructure and technology.

First, distraction.

We've seen a locomotive engineer texting, running a red signal, and colliding head on with a freight train in Southern California — killing 25 and injuring dozens. We've seen a tugboat mate distracted by his cell phone and his laptop — causing the barge he was pushing in the Delaware River to run over a "duck" boat killing two students. We've even seen two airline pilots distracted by their personal laptops and out of communication with air traffic control for more than one hour, overfly their destination — Minneapolis — by more than 100 miles.

While we've seen distraction in all modes, its toll is the highest on our highways.

Our distraction investigations date back at least ten years ago when we investigated a crash in Maryland. A young driver was talking on her cell phone when her SUV crossed the highway median, flipped over, and landed on a minivan. That conversation ended in five fatalities.

Then, in 2004, an experienced bus driver, driving a familiar route in Virginia as the second bus in a two-bus caravan, was distracted by a hands-free phone call. He struck a low-clearance stone bridge, injuring 11 high school students. When our investigators interviewed the driver he said that not only didn't he see the sign, he didn't see the bridge until he hit it.

Finally, last December, we completed an investigation into a chain-reaction crash in Missouri that killed two and injured 38. The cause: a distracted driver who sent and received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes prior to the accident.

That's when we issued our strongest recommendation yet. We called for a nationwide ban on the use of portable electronic devices by all drivers.

That recommendation struck a chord. As it should.

As before, we identified a key safety issue: taking attention away from the driving task.

And, we're seeing the resistance. But we've also had a lot of support from highway safety advocates, government, the telecommunications industry and from a number of states who, like Ohio, have enacted legislation that begins to address this growing problem.

For safety to prevail, societal norms must change.

The second challenge, and it's a big one, is maintaining our nation's transportation infrastructure — some 600,000 bridges, nearly 4 million miles of public roads, 2.6 million miles of oil and gas pipelines, 120,000 miles of major railroads, and more than 25,000 miles of commercially navigable waterways.

That's a lot of infrastructure.

And, we all know, the state of our infrastructure is not as strong as it should be. We've heard the call for investment from commuters tired of congestion, from regions wanting growth opportunities, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and more.

President Obama often cites a "report card" from the American Society of Civil Engineers that gave our nation's bridges a "C" and our roads a "D."

Would you be satisfied if your child brought home a report card like that?

As a parent, you'd be convinced that your child could do better. And so can we.

The condition of our infrastructure drains tens of billions of dollars from the economy, costs motorists billions of dollars in vehicle maintenance costs and time, and contributes to traffic accidents and fatalities.

And infrastructure can be deadly, as we've seen in our pipeline investigations. In San Bruno, California, a half-century-old pipe ruptured, killed eight people and wiped out an entire neighborhood.

There must be a commitment to investing in our infrastructure before it fails, rather than after, for safety to prevail.

Investment is all about taking the long view, like when the Washington Nationals benched their star pitcher.

The final challenge is the wise use of technology.

It can be tempting to see technology as the answer to every problem. But, there are always risks and tradeoffs to be understood and addressed. For example, in our Washington Metro investigation we found its operations center detected system anomalies and sounded alarms. But with hundreds of alarms going off every day, staff members were desensitized and didn't pay attention to any of them.

Yet, look at the safety benefits from technology. And there are many. You may recall the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis. The replacement bridge is fully instrumented to provide real-time data about the health and integrity of the structure throughout its lifetime.

Yes, technology brings us more data, but it's essential to use data and information to be preventive, to make sure that safety prevails.

Technology provides us with great vehicle safety benefits, such as anti-lock brakes, side-curtain air bags and electronic stability control. And, on the way are lane-departure and forward-collision warning systems.

But, what about technology that distracts vehicle operators like we saw in those investigations involving cell phones and laptops? We know distractions are only going to grow as drivers check Facebook, book a dinner reservation and buy movie tickets, all while behind the wheel.

While technology presents problems, it can also provide the solutions. Consider the autonomous car. Last year, I rode in Google's self-driving car as it negotiated a busy freeway. It avoided other vehicles, slowed and sped up with the flow of traffic, and when necessary, turned over control to the human driver. It is remarkable to think what that car could mean for aging drivers, busy parents and the disabled.

Last week, California legalized driverless cars.

Yes, we must invest in technology, but we must ensure that technology solves problems and doesn't create new ones.

Addressing distraction, wisely investing in transportation infrastructure and the smart use of technology — that's what it will take to build a stronger future. So that safety can prevail.

We lost an American hero this year — Ohio native and astronaut, Neil Armstrong, known by all for that small step for man and giant leap for mankind.

I like to think of Armstrong the way his family asked he be remembered. They said, "Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink."

That's what we at the NTSB strive to do — in our case, be an example of service, accomplishment and safety.

The next time you meet a flight, get off a bus or drive home safely, think of all the people — from the NTSB and from across government and industry — who work hard to make changes so that safety can prevail.