NTSB Chair: When It Comes to Safety, We Can Pay Now--Or Pay Later

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NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman

(Washington, D.C. -- Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation) Our country’s aging infrastructure poses a safety risk, according to Deborah Hersman, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) -- and spending cuts could come with safety consequences.

“We stand at a very important crossroads right now,” she told Transportation Nation.  “Safety is not discretionary. Safety deferred is safety denied...We can either pay now, or we can pay later.” Paying close attention to the recommendations of the independent federal agency can reveal stark tensions between budgets and safety.

“The fact is the outlook for increased funding and infrastructure projects is grim,” Hersman said earlier Wednesday to a conference of transportation researchers. “Many of those projects are in jeopardy as we face funding cuts. And right now the question for all of us is not what is going to happen, but how hard it is going to hit us,” adding: “When it comes to investing in safety, we can pay now, or pay later.”

Many infrastructure projects in America are already past their intended lifespan, and that will pose an increasing risk--especially if proper records aren’t kept on maintenance histories, original design, and necessary repairs. Hersman said poor record keeping often exacerbates dangers. She painted her role as one of truth teller.  “As an agent of reality,” she said, “I think it’s my job to tell you that the concept of a life cycle for transportation projects no longer exists. Just because the train or plane that you design is built for 30, 40, or 50 years, doesn’t mean it” that it won’t be in operation for 75 years or more.

Aging infrastructure across American is also a risk, she said, along with lax safety cultures in companies and public agencies. She cited the 2009 crash on the Washington Metro as an example where lessons learned from a near crash were not implemented, allowing for the worst accident in the transit agency’s history to occur.

The NTSB is the independent federal agency that investigates and determines the causes of transportation accidents, like plane crashes, or the Minnesota bridge collapse.

Many of the NTSB recommendations are not likely to be implemented in tough economic times for cost reasons. For example: the NTSB recommended that Washington Metro immediately replace a third of its fleet because the 1000-series rail cars are no longer crash-worthy. Funding that would most likely require a hefty—and politically poisonous—fare increase or government subsidy in the order of a billion dollars. None of that is likely to happen--because, as Hersman said, the NTSB doesn't factor money into its recommendations. “The safety board does not have to do a cost-benefit analysis. That really is up to the recipient … it’s up to them to decide if it is feasible to implement (the recommendations)."

And agencies often don't implement them. Last year, an investigation by News21 and the Center for Public Integrity found that one of every six safety recommendations proposed by the NTSB since 1967 went unfulfilled, while other recommendations were implemented only after years of delay.  The investigation prompted a response by Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who said the U.S. DOT completed more NTSB safety recommendations in 2010 than in any of the last five years.

More TN safety coverage: The Limits of the NTSB; NTSB — “The Only Question was When Metro Would Have Another Accident” and Transportation Fatalities Drop 9%

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