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U.S. Transportation Safety Board Launches a Self-Examination

More than 1,000 of its recommendations remain unresolved, prompting the review.

May 07, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The government's transportation watchdog agency on Tuesday turned a routine annual meeting to update its wish list of safety improvements into a forum for launching an examination of its own performance.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates everything from airline crashes to the effectiveness of car seats for infants, voted 5 to 0 to begin an intensive 30-day assessment of how it can improve its record.

The surprising move came at the first official meeting in which appointees of President Bush comprised a majority of the board.

"We have to be aggressive in our pursuit of safety," said newly appointed Chairwoman Ellen G. Engleman. "We don't want our recommendations or our issues to languish."

Although more than 80% of NTSB recommendations are ultimately accepted by other government agencies and industry, Engleman said, it is "unacceptable" to her that more than 1,000 are still unresolved.

The board voted to temporarily set aside its "most wanted" list of safety improvements until the internal review is completed.

The list includes dozens of recommendations in 12 major areas that range from reducing the risk of runway collisions to combating vehicle operator fatigue to preventing recreational boating accidents.

The NTSB staff had arrived at the meeting with proposals to add two new areas to the most wanted list: confronting hard-core drunk drivers and improving monitoring of medical conditions that can impair bus and truck drivers.

The unexpected turn of events was welcomed by a former high-ranking NTSB staff member.

"I think [Engleman] has done the right thing," said Peter Goelz, managing director during much of the Clinton administration and now an industry consultant. "The whole purpose of the list should be to highlight special safety issues in such a way that we can get them addressed and off the list."

Of the 12 major areas for improvement, four have been on the list since its inception in 1990, during the administration of the first President Bush. They are runway safety, technology for avoiding train collisions, recreational boating accidents and dealing with the role of fatigue in all kinds of crashes.

Some of these areas have seen advances, but generally the issues are complicated and costly to resolve.

It is unclear whether Engleman's initiative will lead to actual gains in safety for the traveling public, or will end up as a housekeeping exercise aimed at clearing old issues off the NTSB's books. Some of the 1,045 unresolved safety recommendations may be out of date, and many others deal with small pieces of larger, highly technical matters.

"I believe that performance and results are what matter, and that's the way I manage, and that's the way I lead," Engleman said. "The board is asking for accountability from other agencies and from industry, and it is my desire to focus on the accountability of the board."

As administrator of a federal pipeline safety agency, Engleman worked to resolve neglected NTSB recommendations.

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