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Remarks Before the Columbia (South Carolina) Rotary Club, Columbia, SC
Robert L. Sumwalt
Columbia, SC

It is great to be in the Palmetto State and it is great to be in Columbia. This club has members who have been very influential to me over the years. My father-in-law, Dr. Rod Macdonald is a member. When I was flying airplanes for the University of South Carolina over 25 years ago, my boss was Bernie Daetwyler, and at the time he was president of this club. And, of course, I have known Mr. South Carolina Aviation, Jim Hamilton, for 33 years.

Being appointed by the President to serve an agency is one of the highest callings in the land and I am honored to have been asked to serve.

When I sat down with Senator DeMint to tell him of my interest in this position, I told him that to my knowledge, there has never been a South Carolinian to serve on the National Transportation Safety Board. Well, today, I am pleased to say that is no longer the case!

Senator DeMint really provided great assistance in my nomination and confirmation, as did Senator Lindsay Graham, Congressman Joe Wilson and SC Attorney General Henry McMaster.

You know the NTSB as the agency that investigates aviation accidents. Well, we certainly do that, but we also investigate selected rail, marine, highway and pipeline accidents, as well as those that involve transportation of hazardous materials.

We are an independent federal agency, charged by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, determine probable cause and issue safety recommendations to prevent their recurrence.

Our independence is crucial. We call it the way we see it and we don’t pull any punches.

We are a small agency with just under 400 employees.

This April we will celebrate our 40 th anniversary and during those years we have investigated nearly 130,000 accidents. About 90 percent those are aviation accidents.

We do not have regulatory authority. When we uncover a deficiency, we cannot enact a law or regulation to “fix’ the problem. We can only issue a safety recommendation to the appropriate organization and then see what happens. The big stick is that we track these recommendations and DOT agencies are required to report to Congress those recommendations that they haven’t implemented.

Overall, 82 percent of our 12,500 recommendations have been accepted.

Truly, I believe the work we are doing does save lives. And that, in itself, is exciting.

I have long admired the NTSB, its noble mission and its dedicated people. After all, it is the world’s preeminent transportation safety and accident investigation agency.

I’ve followed the work of the Board for a long time. When I was at USC I would literally sit on the floor of the USC Government Documents library and go through and read NTSB accident reports. As I read those reports I was fascinated by the work of this agency.

As someone who was actively working on the front lines to improve aviation safety, I viewed the Safety Board as a place where I could further channel that passion to really make a positive difference in the transportation safety business.

Our nation’s transportation system is vital to our economy and national well-being.

Case in point – the January 2005 Norfolk Southern rail accident in Graniteville. The accident was the worst of its type since 1978. Our investigation determined that a train crew left a rail switch in an improper position. The misaligned switch sent the next train onto an industry siding, where it struck a parked train head-on. The collision ruptured a tank car filled with poisonous chlorine gas creating a toxic vapor cloud that filled the area. Nine people died as a result of chlorine gas inhalation and approximately 5400 residents were evacuated for days.

But, the affects of the accident were more far-reaching. Eighteen months after the accident, Avondale Mills, whose plant was adjacent to the crash site, reported that severe corrosion caused by the leaking chlorine was going to force the Avondale Mills to shut down. Not only had it caused that mill there in Graniteville to close, but they claimed that the Graniteville Mill was so critical to their operation, the entire company with several mills would be forced to shut down. 4000 employees out of work.

The economic ripple effects continued right here to the Midlands. Recently, SCANA, South Carolina’s largest publicly traded company, reported that due to the loss of providing electricity to that mill in Graniteville (and others), SCE&G’s earnings would be off.

So, yes, transportation is the lifeblood of our economy and it is vital that this nation maintain this complex system safe, healthy and dependable.

And although this system generally performs well, when transportation accidents do occur, it is imperative that we be able to reassure the American public that the Government is conducting thorough, timely, honest, competent and unbiased investigations.

And that is the mission of the NTSB. We’ve done it for 40 years.

The US commercial aviation industry has enjoyed an extraordinary good safety record for the past number of years. But the week after I arrived at the Safety Board, the industry suffered the worst aviation accident in terms of loss of life, in five years. That accident involved the Comair crash in Lexington, Kentucky. There were 49 fatalities.

I am confident that our investigation will determine the cause of this accident and be able to make recommendations to prevent its reoccurrence.

And although I come from an aviation background, I made a commitment to the US Senate that if confirmed, I would not limit my interests of attention to aviation matters.

I strongly believe that the traveling public deserves and is entitled to safe transportation, regardless of the transportation mode that they choose.

One obvious area for needed improvements is highway safety. Last year over 43,000 people died on our nation’s roadways.

Let me put this into perspective. Look around the room to get an idea of the number of people that we are talking about. It is about 230 people, right? Well, that same number of people die every two days on our nation’s roadways. These just aren’t statistics – these are people just like you and me.

Improving safety on our nation’s roadways must become a political and social priority.

A subset of traffic crashes is the issue of alcohol-impaired driving. Let me give you another vivid example. In the entire 46-year history of US commercial jet aviation, there have been approximately 5700 fatalities involving US-operated airline jets (excluding terrorists activities.) Well, as unfortunate as these deaths are, DUI claims that amount of victims every four months!

Rick Brundrett of The State Newspaper has conducted an excellent investigative series on our weak DUI laws here in South Carolina. In response, I wrote an Op-Ed piece in November to comment on this. Allow me to share a few thoughts on this topic.

  • In 2005, nearly 500 people lost their lives on SC roadways due to alcohol-related crashes.
  • Alcohol-related crashes represent 42 percent of all fatalities in the Palmetto State.
  • 40 percent of repeat DUI offenders in SC plead guilty to lesser offenses
  • Nearly 60 percent of those arrested for third and fourth offenses are able to plead to lower charges.
  • Getting hard-core drinking drivers off our roadways is on the Safety Board’s “Most Wanted List.” Simply put, this is a high priority with the NTSB.
  • The fact is that South Carolina lacks six of the 11 elements on the NTSB’s model program aimed at combating hard-core drinking driving.
  • The fact is that South Carolina has a greater percentage of alcohol-related roadway fatalities than the national average.
  • The fact is that South Carolina’s DUI laws need to be strengthened.

I have met with the Governor’s office and members of the Legislature. The good news is that the Governor and several members of the Legislature have said that stronger DUI laws are a priority this legislative session.

The NTSB stands ready to assist in terms of providing background information and testimony to help support the proposed legislation.

Now, it’s your turn. I challenge you to contact legislators and urge them to support stronger DUI legislation.

So, ladies and gentlemen, the NTSB is dedicated to improving safety on our nation’s airways, roadways, waterways and railways.

In wrapping up, let me say that I am very proud and honored to have been selected to serve our nation.

And I think this is what this is all about – serving.

I recently read something about public service, and I’ll share a quote from it:

“Public service is one of the highest callings in the land. You have the opportunity to make a positive impact on families, communities, states and sometimes the world.”

I truly believe this statement applies so well to the work of the Board – we have the opportunity to make a positive impact on families, communities, states and sometimes the world.

This is a responsibility that I take seriously and I eagerly look forward to serving over the next five years.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to join you today.