Deadly subway crash in D.C. turns spotlight on regulation
US safety board cannot require changes it wants
WASHINGTON - Has the National Transportation Safety Board become the government’s “I-told-you-so’’ agency?
After the deadly subway collision in Washington this week, 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 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 investigations. But the board cannot order safety changes.
“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 gave the NTSB power only 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.
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 Trainmen, 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.
Investigators probing the crash are looking more closely at a stretch of track near the wreck site after finding abnormalities yesterday in equipment that senses trains and transmits speed commands.
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.