Talking Transportation with Jennifer Homendy – Board Member, NTSB

In the alphabet soup of federal transportation agencies– DOT, FRA, FHWA, TSA, STB – only one can be said to capture the attention of the general public.  The NTSB.  No other transportation agency possesses a first responder like presence on the scene of a transportation disaster and no other transportation agency looks quite as commanding as the NTSB does in its prominent blue windbreakers emblazoned with the agency’s initials across the back. 

The National Transportation Safety Board plays a unique role in transportation policymaking in that it serves as an investigative body following transportation disasters and it is an advocacy organization promoting safety recommendations.  The NTSB holds no authority to require agencies to adopt its recommendations.  Instead, it uses its “Most Wanted List” as an advocacy tool to advance transportation safety policies. 

I wanted to learn more about how the NTSB works, so I reached out to NTSB Board Member, Jennifer Homendy.  She is the 44th member of the NTSB, she took the oath of office in August 2018.  Prior to that Member Homendy spent 14 years as the Democratic Staff Director of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials.  During her career at Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials she worked on transportation reauthorizations and major transportation safety legislation including the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act that mandated Positive Train Control (“PTC”) on the nation’s railroads.  

What you will find in this conversation is – not only – a discussion of the NTSB, but an inside look at how transportation safety legislation becomes law.  We discussed a range of topics including the NTSB’s early advocacy for PTC technology:

Member Homendy:

The NTSB first recommended to the Federal Railroad Administration automatic train control, a very early form of what we envisioned for PTC, in 1970.  In 1990, the NTSB placed PTC on its first Most Wanted List.

We also discussed the powerful impact that the family members of victims of transportation disasters have on Congressional members:

Member Homendy:

One aspect of the NTSB’s mission is to meet a victim’s families, we see them at the worst possible time of their lives, when a loved one has died tragically.  It is inspiring to see them later, a lot of them become advocates.  The advocacy those families do to make policy change is critical.  As someone that worked on transportation policy for Congress, those meetings were what had the greatest influence on Congressional members.

Member Homendy explained why the NTSB directs its recommendations to federal agencies instead of Congress:

Member Homendy:

When it comes to recommendations to the various agencies. 

Congress should not have to mandate the agencies to utilize their authority to regulate.  But, if an agency thinks it doesn’t have authority or if an agency thinks that without a Congressional mandate, a policy would not pass a cost/benefit test, it is incumbent on the agency to go to Congress for the necessary authority.  If they don’t ask for it, they didn’t want to do it.   

And we discussed how she develops technical transportation knowledge.

Member Homendy:

I also like to learn by doing:

When I wanted to learn more about railroads, I spent the day with Norfolk Southern roadway workers to learn how ties are replaced. 

When I wanted to learn how PTC operates, I went to BNSF.

When I wanted to learn more about aviation, I went to ground school during one of the government shutdowns.  And I got my student pilot license and took some flight lessons, just to understand it. 

When I wanted to learn about motorcycles, I took a class and got my motorcycle license.

In order to know that you are making the correct decisions, you have to understand everything from the ground up.  You have to understand how the industry functions. 

Please continue reading below for our entire conversation.

JM

Member Homendy, thank you for agreeing to sit down and discuss transportation policy with me.

JH

Well thank you and thanks to the ATLP for having me.

JM

When I think about the NTSB, I often conjure visions of Board Members and investigators in dark blue jackets emblazoned with the bright yellow NTSB across the back standing before cable and local news briefing the public on news related to a major airline crash, a derailment, or some other transportation calamity.  Can you explain to us the NTSB’s investigatory mission?

JH

The NTSB investigates every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant crashes in other modes of transportation, including ruptures of oil and gas pipelines. In pipelines, we’re required to investigate an accident in which there’s a fatality, significant injury to the environment, or substantial property damage.  We normally won’t investigate non-transportation incidents.  For example, a chemical facility explosion would likely fall under the Chemical Safety Board, unless it involved loading, unloading, or storage incidental to transportation.

Following the investigation, NTSB staff provide a draft report, including probable cause, findings, and recommendations and in a public hearing, the five-member Board votes to approve (or amend) a report which may include safety recommendations.  Our goal with the report is to determine what happened, why it happened, and how it can be prevented from happening again.

JM

Are Board Members assigned a transportation incident based on expertise?

JH

No, we work on a calendar rotation.  When a transportation incident occurs, a decision is made on whether we’ll launch and then whether the on-call Board Member will arrive on scene with our investigators.  Usually within 24 hours, we develop groups that will delve into particular aspects of the investigation. For example, one group will analyze weather factors, another will look into operations, another will look into airworthiness (for aviation accidents), etc...

The Board Member’s primary role on-scene is to meet with the families of the victims and provide updates to the media and public officials. 

But, after this initial investigatory phase, Board Members are no longer involved in the investigation.

JM

Really, why is that?

JH

Well, there are three very good reasons.  First, we are political appointees and not investigators.  Our involvement, beyond the initial on-scene site visit could call into question the integrity of the investigation.  It is paramount that NTSB investigations are driven by facts.  The public can’t see a political appointee as directing an investigation because it could undermine the public trust in the resulting report and safety recommendations.

Second, because we send only one Board Member on-scene, that member should not have information that the other Board Members don’t have. 

Finally, it is good for the on-scene member to step away, so that when staff issues its draft report, we can review it with fresh eyes.  When you come from a different perspective, it makes for a better product. We do however keep an eye on the docket to stay up-to-date on what’s going on.

JM

Do the Board members have a role in shaping the final report?

JH

Yes, we do.  The investigative staff provides us with a draft pre-meeting report for us to comment on. Each of the Board Members meet with staff to walk through the report and ask questions, and we provide staff with a memo prior to the public meeting requesting clarifications.  For example, we might ask them why they chose to not identify a company by name, or we suggest adding a finding or adding a recommendation. 

The next step is the public Board meeting and we have another opportunity to offer amendments to the body of the report, the probable cause, the findings, and the recommendations, which are subject to a Board vote. 

JM

How do you approach these public meetings?

JH

My goal when I arrive to the meeting is to already know ahead of time, what I want my focus to be.  I will read thousands of pages that staff has compiled in the docket, for example interview transcripts.  In order to do that, I do not take meetings a few days prior to a Board meeting.

The Board meetings are streamed on the web so I think it is important that we communicate our findings and recommendations effectively.  Our Board meeting for Atlas Air Flight 3591 – a February 23, 2019 domestic cargo flight that crashed during approach into Houston, killing the two crew members and one passenger on board – had 2000 viewers. 

As Board Members, we can identify a cause of an incident or a safety measure and elevate it.  So, I try to use my time to highlight what I see is important and to tell the story to explain of how an accident happened. Also, viewers don’t have the benefit of having a copy of our report so they may not understand the issues that are being raised in the public meeting so I try to use that time to have staff clarify those issues to raise awareness with viewers and the general public.

JM

Ok, so the NTSB studies a crash, it makes safety recommendations, and then what is the Board’s role?   

JH

Well, as you know, the NTSB does not have the power to implement its recommendations.  But in addition to conducting investigations, we have a mission to advocate and to promote our safety recommendations. 

JM

How does the NTSB keep its safety recommendations relevant following the issuance of your reports?

JH

Well, every 90 days or so there are usually written communications going back and forth with recipients of our recommendations to evaluate what they’ve done to implement them.  Further, if we detect a trend in the accidents that we investigate, we will promote a recommendation to our Most Wanted List, or conduct a more in-depth safety study on the issue, such as bicycle safety.  This list identifies the top safety improvements that can be made across all modes to prevent accidents, minimize injuries, and save lives in the future. 

JM

How do Board Members promote the Most Wanted List?

JH

Each Board Member takes the lead on particular issues, two of mine are positive train control and vehicle speeding.  We use the persuasive power of the NTSB to see that our recommendations are implemented by testifying before Congress, giving speeches, writing articles, and participating in interviews. 

JM

Could you provide an example of how the NTSB’s advocacy resulted in policy changes?

JH

Yes, the NTSB was instrumental in ensuring implementation of Positive Train Control (“PTC”). 

JM

Interesting, I have always been under the impression that it was the 2008 Chatsworth, California passenger rail collision that motivated Congress to mandate PTC.

JH

Well, I think that Chatsworth certainly pushed the PTC mandate over the finish line.  But the NTSB first recommended to the Federal Railroad Administration automatic train control, a very early form of what we envisioned for PTC, in 1970.  In 1990, the NTSB placed PTC on its first Most Wanted List.

The NTSB cannot be said to have singlehandedly convinced Congress to pass PTC, but its advocacy ensured that when Chatsworth happened, the legislative frame work was already in place for Congress to pass a bill.

JM

In your role on the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, were you working on PTC legislation prior to its enactment in 2008?

JH

Yes, as Democratic Staff Director for the Subcommittee, I began looking at PTC legislation in 2004 and 2005. Then there were a slew of railroad accidents investigated by the NTSB that could have been avoided if PTC had been implemented.  This is where you can really understand how Congress works in terms of enacting safety legislation.  The NTSB raised the profile of the issue, Congress became interested in it, a series of derailments and collisions resulted in hearings and meetings with members, and then Congress introduced legislation to mandate it.  Through this process, I came to realize that the most effective advocates for new transportation safety policies are victim’s families, like Steve Seeling, the father of a deceased railroad engineer.

Mr. Seeling’s son, Christopher, died as a result of a railroad collision on January 5, 2005.  Christopher Seeling was the engineer on a Norfolk Southern train laden with chlorine when it collided with an unoccupied train near Graniteville, SC due to a misaligned switch that routed the train onto a siding resulting in a collision.  In addition to Christopher Seeling, the collision killed eight other people.

Christopher’s father, Steve became an advocate for implementation of a number of NTSB recommendations that could’ve prevented that accident and the death of his son.  Mr. Seeling’s meeting with the Chair at the time, Congressman Jim Oberstar, was a very moving meeting and one I will never forget.

 [JM - Following my interview with Member Homendy, she drafted a blog post on Positive Train Control recounting the many preventable derailments and the advocacy of victim’s families.  That post can be found on the NTSB’s blog here.]

In May of 2007, Congressman Oberstar introduced HR 2095 that included a PTC mandate.  The railroads advocated against PTC arguing that they were not ready for it and that they cannot do it.

While HR 2095 was in the House, the Senate was working on Amtrak reauthorization.  Then the chambers swapped bills.  The House began consideration of the Amtrak reauthorization bill and the Senate Commerce Committee reported out their own rail safety bill, which also included a PTC mandate.

The chambers began negotiating both bills to move them as one package, but the Senate was having a hard time getting time on the floor.  That’s when the Chatsworth collision occurred involving a passenger commuter train.  It too could have been prevented through installation of PTC.  It served as a trigger, the House and Senate finalized the negotiations and Congress passed the PTC mandate.  It was because of the numerous toxic by inhalation (“TIH”) derailments and the and passenger rail accidents, including the Chatsworth collision, that the mandate applies specifically to commuter and passenger rail and trains transporting TIH.

It has been interesting to see the process.  I helped write the bill and now at I am at the NTSB advocating for its full implementation.  But, if it wasn’t for NTSB’s advocacy dating back to 1970, PTC would never have become law.

JM

Well, the development of PTC could be a case study for a master’s degree in policy making.

JH

It really was.  I continue to be impressed by the families.  One aspect of the NTSB’s mission is to meet a victim’s families, we see them at the worst possible time of their lives, when a loved one has died tragically.  It is inspiring to see them later, a lot of them become advocates.  The advocacy those families do to make policy change is critical.  As someone that worked on transportation policy for Congress, those meetings were what had the greatest influence on Congressional members.

JM

Why in its initial recommendation and in its continued advocacy did the NTSB recommend to FRA to mandate an automatic control system instead of Congress.  Looking at the Most Wanted List, many of the recommendations are to agencies and not to Congress.  Don’t these agencies require the authority to implement NTSB recommendations? 

JH

We do not direct the recommendations to Congress because the NTSB believes that actions can be taken voluntarily by the private entities.  So, entities that are involved in our investigations can follow the recommendations.

When it comes to recommendations to the various agencies.  The NTSB thinks that the agencies have broad safety authority.  I am not naive, I understand that agencies follow a cost/benefit analysis.  The U.S. DOT values a life at $9.6 million.  At NTSB every life is priceless.  The modal administrations of DOT also delegate some safety policy development to various negotiated rulemaking committees through consensus with industry.  I think sometimes the agencies need to stop deferring their authority to the committees. An agency’s job, first and foremost, in DOT, is to ensure safety. Members of rulemaking committees may have different objectives and concerns.

Congress should not have to mandate the agencies to utilize their authority to regulate.  But, if an agency thinks it doesn’t have authority or if an agency thinks that without a Congressional mandate, a policy would not pass a cost/benefit test, it is incumbent on the agency to go to Congress for the necessary authority.  If they don’t ask for it, they didn’t want to do it.    

JM

Can you share with me your process for educating yourself on the technical aspects of transportation safety? 

JH

Well, I study a lot and I immerse myself in whatever it is I am trying to learn.  Prior to joining the subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, I worked at AFL/CIO on international trade and safety issues for truck drivers and rail workers and I was also with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters working on trade and truck safety. 

When I joined Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, I had already received a hazardous materials certification, but I didn’t know rail and pipelines. I was honest about this knowledge deficit when I was hired and of course, the first bill I worked on was the creation of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.  This bill involved big pipeline issues that needed to be worked on.  So, I called the director of the office of railroad, pipeline, and hazardous materials investigations for NTSB at the time and we met at the NTSB and on the Hill, and he taught me all about pipeline safety.

I learned everything I could about pipelines.  I read all of the law going back to the 1960s.  I read all of DOT’s reports. I read all of it because you can’t legislate on an issue moving forward without knowing what was done in the past. 

I also like to learn by doing:

When I wanted to learn more about railroads, I spent the day with Norfolk Southern roadway workers to learn how ties are replaced. 

When I wanted to learn how PTC works, I went to BNSF.

When I wanted to learn more about aviation, I went to ground school during one of the government shutdowns.  And I got my student pilot license and took some flight lessons, just to understand it. 

When I wanted to learn about motorcycles, I took a class and got my motorcycle license.

In order to know that you are making the correct decisions, you have to understand everything from the ground up.  You have to understand how the industry functions. 

JM

You mentioned that in addition to PTC, one of your other policy issue areas is vehicle speed, can you please tell me about that.

JH

When I arrived at the NTSB, the Board was finalizing three reports on vulnerable road users: 1) Motorcyclists, 2) Pedestrians, and 3) Bicyclists.

For the pedestrian safety report, we took fifteen incidents that wouldn’t normally reach the NTSB, grouped them all together and issued this report.  One area we looked at is dangerous road designs. 

Before I arrived at the Board, we issued a report on excessive vehicle speeding.  In each of these reports, especially the pedestrian and bicycling reports, we discuss the need for infrastructure that is designed for pedestrians and cyclists because as it stands today, our street infrastructure is only designed for vehicles. 

I am an advocate for road diets, separated bike lanes and modernizing how we investigate vehicle collisions. 

It is very clear, that speed kills.  When you look at the death rate of people struck by motorists at 20 mph compared to the death rate of people struck by motorist traveling over 30 mph, people struck at 20 mph have a much higher chance of surviving.

Our counterparts in other countries view infrastructure differently, because they design their streets for the intended user whether its for pedestrians and cyclists in an urban environment or for high vehicle speeds on a highway.  The NTSB has raised these issues and I would like to see the NTSB continue to advocate for vulnerable road users.

I am specifically interested in road design, but the NTSB had already done a lot of this work before I arrived. 

[JM – Readers may remember my interview with Beth Osborne of Transportation 4 America.  Her focus is also on designing infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists.  That interview is here in case you missed it.]

JM

Well, I thank you Member Homendy, I very much appreciate your time today.

JH

Thank you.

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