NTSB chief warns against complacency in farewell address

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairwoman Deborah Hersman warned Monday against complacency in regulating U.S. transportation systems in her farewell address.    

Hersman said in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington that progress has made in areas aviation and automobiles in her 10-year tenure at the NTSB. 

But she said regulators cannot rest on their laurels as she prepares to depart the accident investigation agency for the Itasca, Ill.-based National Safety Council.

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"We wouldn’t accept cars without seat-belts today," Hersman said. "We wouldn’t accept airliners without evacuation slides. Yesterday’s tragic lessons are today’s safety wish list – and tomorrow’s unacceptable risks."

Hersman announced last month that she is resigning from the NTSB to take over the safety council. She has been at the helm of the NTSB during several high-profile accident investigations since becoming chairwoman in 2009, including a regional airplane crash in Buffalo, N.Y., that spurred a host of regulatory changes and the crash landing of an Asiana Airlines plane in San Francisco last summer.

Hersman used the Asiana crash, which resulted in only three deaths, as an example of how much aviation safety has improved and how much work she said remains to be done.

"Twenty years ago, United flight 232 crashed in Sioux City," she said, referencing a 1989 plane accident.

"Only three people died, not 111 -- in part because the two crashes were different, but in part because of safety advances since 1989," Hersman continued.   

Hersman said the NTSB has been recommending that lawmakers and regulators should ban airlines from allowing infant children to sit in their parents' laps on flights, citing a baby that was killed in the 1989 accident after being placed on the floor by his parents in preparation for an emergency crash landing.

The departing NTSB chief said regulators should not wait until there is a catastrophic accident to think about other improvements that can be made to boost transportation safety.

"Some people say the risk is small," she said. "I tell them no, a baby is small. We secure laptops and coffee pots. Yet we do not secure our most precious cargo, our children.

"How many people die in large airplane crashes," Hersman continued. "Just a handful, in the last 4 years, in the United States. But 30,000 people die every year on the nation’s highways. Do you think we should back off aviation safety? Most people don’t. Most people want those frayed ropes replaced before they break. Not after, but now."