Image: Train wreck
Jacquelyn Martin  /  AP
Officials at the National Transportation Safety Board have said the NTSB had recommended the replacement of older rail cars such as the ones that crashed.
updated 6/24/2009 9:22:19 PM ET 2009-06-25T01:22:19

Has the National Transportation Safety Board become the government's "I-told-you-so" agency?

After this week's deadly subway collision in Washington, board member Debbie Hersman pointed to safety recommendations the NTSB made years earlier to replace older subway cars, which might have saved lives — if they had been followed.

A commuter airliner crash near Buffalo, N.Y., on an icy February night killed 50 people and focused attention on recommendations by the board about flying in icy weather and pilot training, some more than a decade old, that the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to fully implement.

Overall, the board is still pressing federal, state and local government agencies responsible for planes, trains, ships, cars and trucks to fully implement 1,025 recommendations — which sometimes become prescient warnings — that emerge from its accident investigations. But the board can't order safety changes.

Why the inaction?
"We are frustrated with recommendations that don't get implemented," said Elaine Weinstein, director of the board's recommendations office. Acting board chairman Mark Rosenker wants to see regulators act faster: "Clearly, when we talk about a decade or more," Rosenker said earlier this year, "that is an unreasonable amount of time."

Three obstacles produce the inaction and delays: money, politics and technology.

Money includes both a lack of public funds and solutions so expensive that regulators and industry executives fear their cost would drive the price of service out of sight. Political will can include a philosophical aversion to government regulation, a tightfisted evaluation of costs versus benefits of any change or just a lack of public pressure. Finally, some board recommendations simply go beyond what existing technology can do.

Congress only gave the NTSB power to investigate accidents and recommend changes. When Congress completely separated the board from the regulatory agencies, it said the panel had to be independent so it could make "conclusions and recommendations that may be critical" of those agencies, if necessary.

Most of the board's nearly 13,000 recommendations since it began work in 1967 are not languishing. More than four out of five have been implemented to the board's satisfaction.

This work is reflected in everyone's life: rules limiting alcohol drinking by pilots, ship captains and recreational boaters, truckers and train engineers; shoulder belts in the back seats of autos and state laws requiring life jackets for children in pleasure boats; not to mention thousands of mechanical and procedural changes to planes, trains, vehicles and ships that are invisible to most who use them.

'They just can't afford it'
When the board's advice goes unheeded, money is usually the reason. In the Washington transit crash, one of the trains involved had cars built more than 30 years ago. Metrorail spokeswoman Candace Smith said it would have cost $888 million to replace 296 cars built more than 30 years ago, including the one that slammed into a stopped train.

"They just can't afford it," said John Tolman, vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainman, who has assisted on more than a dozen NTSB rail investigations. "They are totally underbudgeted and you have to weigh that against the cost to the customer." Metrorail is funded by the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.

Aversion to regulation
Money questions are usually political as well.

"Every government agency that makes rules has to look at all the potential costs and benefits of the rule," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said. And those judgments involve not just regulatory agencies but also the Office of Management and Budget in the White House.

"Everything trickles down from the White House," Tolman said.

A former safety board chairman under Democratic President Bill Clinton, Jim Hall, said a spate of recent accidents related to ignored recommendations could be partially the result of the aversion to government regulation during the business-friendly Republican administration of George W. Bush. "For eight years, the Bush administration essentially did not regulate, from food products to safety to Wall Street."

But aversion to regulation goes beyond any one administration of either party and also includes Congress.

NTSB's Weinstein said her agency spent 20 years advocating computerized train controls to avoid the kind of collision that occurred in Washington, where such a computerized system may share in the blame. But she said the Federal Railroad Administration originally wasn't sure it agreed.

"Initially they didn't see it as cost-effective or the right solution," she said.

Head-on collision spurred action
Not until the head-on collision of freight and commuter trains in Chatsworth, Calif., killed 25 people last September did Congress step in to pass a law requiring computerized train controls throughout America's railroads by 2015. It was the first rail safety bill in 14 years.

"We could use more" attention from Congress, Weinstein said.

Even when action begins, it takes time — an average of five years for fully implemented board recommendations to federal agencies and industry. When state agencies are involved, the need for political will expands 50-fold, and it takes the board 10 to 12 years on average to get legislation in all states, Weinstein said.

The board has tried to get states to enact laws requiring lifejackets for children in recreational boats since 1993, and it's still waiting on Virginia and Wisconsin.

The 1996 explosion of TWA Flight 800 over Long Island, N.Y., which killed 230, presented a different problem. Though terrorism was feared, the safety board traced the cause to ignition of fuel tank vapors and recommended making them incapable of exploding.

"That solution had not been invented," FAA's Brown said. "But engineers at our tech center kept at it and invented a solution and we adopted a rule."

But it took years, and Weinstein pointed out that the FAA did not implement the board's interim proposal: cooling the tanks while fueling on the ground. "They said they didn't want to spend the time on a short-term solution that they could devote to finding a long-term one," Weinstein said. "We classified that as unacceptable."

But Brown points out that the FAA has accepted more than 80 percent of safety board recommendations and not enough planes crash anymore to rely on the investigations to set a safety agenda. "We now collect data from 30 different sources to help us determine where to focus our safety efforts," Brown said. "That enables us to put out hundreds of safety directives each year that are not the result of safety board recommendations."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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