NTSB Chief Focuses on Preventable Accidents

NTSB chairman Debbie Hersman adds role with National Safety Council

For the last five years, Debbie Hersman became the familiar face of disaster in America. As Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Hersman was responsible for policing every major air crash, bus accident, and train wreck across the United States.

Now Hersman has expanded that portfolio. As CEO of the Itasca-based National Safety Council, Hersman has shifted her focus to preventable accidents, at home, on the road, and in the workplace.

"That's what drives me," Hersman says. "That's what keeps me coming to work every day is knowing that we have an opportunity to make a difference."

Hersman remains focused on transportation. After all, she notes, the nation still kills 30,000 people on the roads every year.

"That's a tremendous number," she said, and distracted driving is on her hit list of preventable tragedies.

"There's technology not just to bring things into the cars, but cars that are going to allow us to purchase movie tickets!" she says. "That's not behavior that we want to see in a locomotive engineer or a school bus driver. And why would we think it is any different for us?"

At the NTSB she tried to lead by example, banning messaging or phone calls from agency employees on the road. In the end, it was a policy which she said was not only safer, it was refreshing.

"It's like being the only sober person at a party of drunk people, because you realize that everyone around you is distracted!"

The 101-year-old NSC has made overdoses of prescription medications at home a prime focus. They are preventable, Hersman notes, and potentially deadly.

"It's prescription drugs, that kill more people than cocaine and heroin combined."

Hersman becomes passionate when she speaks of children. She says one of her greatest disappointments was the failure of the nation to ban lap children on airplanes during her 10 years at NTSB. But keeping kids safe at home is a prime concern.

"We've already lost a number of children to heat stroke this summer, because they were left in cars," she notes. "Seventy percent of kids who are hit in back-over accidents are hit by their parents."

She believes safety is a balance between regulation and education. Some, she notes, wear seat belts in cars because they are a good idea. Others do so because it's the law. Either way, Americans are safer since seat belts became the law.

"People often talk about regulations being written in blood, because it wasn't until after an accident occurred and lives were lost that things actually changed."

She noted the development of Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning Systems, designed to prevent airliners from flying into mountains. There had been numerous accidents. But a 1995 American Airlines crash in Cali, Columbia which killed 151 passengers and 8 crew members, which tipped the balance.

"Even policy members said this is enough," she says. "Those regulations came into force, and there was widespread adoption of the technology, virtually eliminating controlled flight into terrain accidents for the aircraft that were equipped."

"Seat belts being mandatory in cars, airbags, electronic stability control, all of these things are the result of regulation," she notes. "All of these things have saved lives. Demonstrably, the data is there. They've saved thousands of lives!"

Hersman says she's a firm believer that lives can be saved through a few very simple practices, and is now clearly aiming her message at every household in America.

"We're talking about saving tens of thousands of lives every year."

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