Travel Safety Recommendations Left to Languish

A thorough investigation by News21 and the Center for Public Integrity has found that one of every six safety recommendations proposed by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) since 1967 has gone unfulfilled. Other recommendations eventually have been implemented only after years of delay. Many factors contribute to this lack of adoption that leaves the door open for additional tragic and possibly preventable truck accidents, airplane crashes and other transportation accidents.

The National Transportation Safety Board

The NTSB is an independent federal agency that exists to determine the likely cause of transportation accidents, promote transportation safety and assist victims of transportation accidents as well as their families.

According to the NTSB, its primary focus is conducting investigations and studies in order to develop recommendations to improve the safety of the nation's transportation system. Safety recommendations are issued to federal, state and local government agencies as well as transportation industries. Agencies that receive the NTSB's recommendations include the:

  • Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
  • Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
  • Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)

However, the NTSB has no legal authority to force federal agencies, states or industries to adopt its safety recommendations.

Languishing Recommendations

Journalism students from the News21 program partnered with the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative-journalism organization, to analyze the safety recommendations' history of implementation. Their investigation found that the NTSB has succeeded in bringing about many transportation safety improvements, but they also discovered that many of the NTSB's safety recommendations are left languishing without further action.

Specifically, the News21 investigation revealed that the NTSB has issued more than 13,000 safety recommendations over the past 43 years, but the agency has essentially given up on 1,952 - or one in six - unfulfilled recommendations.

The Recommendation Process

One part of the problem is the NTSB's long and circuitous recommendation process. In the first step, the NTSB's proposal must be reviewed by a division of the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

Then, the proposal is made available for public comment. The comment period is generally 90 to 120 days, but it may be extended if a group requests more time to study the issue before responding. Therefore, the comment period can sometimes last for years.

After the comment period ends, the NTSB may issue a general response to the comments, revise the recommendation or begin anew with a different proposal. Before finalizing the recommendation, budget officers must review the costs and benefits of the proposal once again.

A Fourteen Year Stall

In some cases, a recommendation never moves beyond the comment period. As reported by News21, in 1995, the FAA issued a proposal to alleviate pilot fatigue by shortening the amount of time pilots are allowed to fly. The proposal faced fierce opposition from pilots unions, air carrier associations and airline companies who claimed there was not enough scientific evidence to support the recommendation and repeatedly requested extensions of the comment period.

Fourteen years later, after more than 2,000 comments were submitted, the FAA withdrew its proposal because it had become too outdated. The FAA began the process again in September, 2010, issuing a new proposal and seeking public comments.

Implementation Delays

In addition to challenges in finalizing recommendations, there are also increasing delays in the implementation of safety recommendations that survive the comment period and become final.

According to News21, the average time federal agencies, states and transportation industries took to implement NTSB safety recommendations increased from just over three years to almost five and a half years from 2000 to 2010. Highway safety agencies, the NHTSA and FMCSA, were the slowest to adopt recommendations with an average time of almost eight years until implementation of recommended safety improvements.

One egregious example of delay problems involved a recommendation to improve airplane escape-slide signs. News21 reported that, after a flight attendant pulled the wrong handle on an escape slide after an emergency landing in 1987, it took the FAA 11 years to implement the NTSB's recommendation to locate "Pull to Inflate" signs as close as possible to the proper handle for the slide.

Both industry and NTSB officials say that the safety recommendations can be expensive and difficult to implement. While the NTSB makes recommendations without regard to their potential cost, industry representatives say the proposals can be prohibitively expensive or impossible to accomplish with existing technology.

These problems, combined with the NTSB's inability to force adoption of its recommendations, have caused the majority of its recommendations to flounder. The U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, pointed out that the Department of Transportation has adopted more NTSB safety recommendations in 2010 than in any of last five years, but progress to improve transportation safety remains painfully slow.