National Press Club

Outgoing NTSB chairman uses Press Club Breakfast to advocate for preventive safety

April 21, 2014 | By Joe Sparks | jjs_jjs@yahoo.com

Deborah Hersman, outgoing chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, delivers farewell address at a National Press Club Breakfast, April 21, 2014.

Deborah Hersman, outgoing chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, delivers farewell address at a National Press Club Breakfast, April 21, 2014.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Deborah Hersman, outgoing chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said proactive solutions to safety problems should be found to prevent accidents before they happen. In a breakfast speech at the National Press Club on April 21, Hersman said that technology is likely to provide the resolution to safety issues.

The primary function of the NSTB “is to investigate to reduce future risk,” Hersman said. “I would like to talk about risk, especially unlikely risks, and why we pay attention to them.”

Hersman framed the safety issues by illustrating the problem with a story about a secluded village. The village is in a prosperous kingdom where life is treasured and the only way to visit it is to be hoisted with a village elder in a rope-drawn basket. A visitor notices that rope is badly frayed but figures that such a place would not put visitors or its elders at risk. As they continue ascending the mountain, the wind is blowing, the basket is swaying and the rope is groaning. The visitor figures he needs to say something and asks the elder how often do they replace the rope? The elder replies, "Whenever it breaks, I guess." She then asked the audience, “Do you think that is good governance?”

Explaining why she believes children should not be allowed to sit in their parents' laps on airplanes, Hersman summarized the incident with United Flight 232 on July 19, 1989. Flight 232 was flying from Denver to Chicago when a tail mounted engine exploded and it lost all hydraulics and flight control. The pilots managed to control the plane by adjusting the thrust on the remaining engines and the captain realized they would have to make a crash landing. The crew needed to prepare the passengers for the crash landing but there were babies on board who had been permitted to sit on their parents’ laps and there was no way to prepare the littlest passengers. The senior flight attendant reminded the parents to buffer the babies in towels and blankets, place them on the floor and brace them with their hands and legs. Two mothers did this, but the plane landed at over 240 miles per hour. The right wing caught the runway, the plane flipped and neither mother could hold onto her baby. The plane broke in three pieces and passenger compartment filled with fire. The babies were nowhere near their mothers. Miraculously, another passenger found one baby, pulled it to safety and it survived. Unfortunately, the other baby did not survive the crash.

Hersman summed up the situation this way, “Some people say the risk is small. I say, no a baby is small. We secure laptops and coffee pots, but we do not secure our most precious cargo, our children.”

During the question-and-answer portion, Hersman said technology can help.

"Technology has the ability to intervene when humans fail” and this technology could reduce the 30,000 fatalities on the nation’s roads. This technology is not being applied fast enough and should not just be in the highest end cars, according to Hersman. She also said the NSTB definitely needs more staff.

Hersman will be at the NSTB until April 25, and after that, she will become the president and chief executive officer of the National Safety Council.