Pay for safety now, or pay the consequences later

Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), spoke Wednesday at the Transportation Research Board’s 90th Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. While Hersman’s role is overseeing NTSB, which investigates accidents, she used her speech as a reminder that proactive spending on safety is a prudent path to take.

bridge_collapse.jpg“Congress has passed over a dozen extensions for the FAA and at least half a dozen extensions for highway programs, primarily because they cannot agree on tough issues like financing,” she said. “The decisions made, or not made, in the coming months affect all of us in this room but, more importantly, determine the transportation realities for all Americans.”

Hersman related a number of stories on her agency’s investigations, and in each case, the life of the train, bridge, or plane was a factor in the accident, as was the lack of oversight.

“In my role at the NTSB, I’m often put in the position of being a truth teller. So as an agent of reality it’s my job to tell you that the concept of a lifecycle no longer exists,” she said. “Just because the train or plane you design is meant to last 30, 40 or 50 years doesn't mean it won’t be around for 75. The NTSB will always be there in an aftermath of an accident to figure out what happened. But that’s only half the job. The other half is prevention.”

She called on government to create a “culture of safety” and learn from the past.

“We know that history repeats itself when lessons are not well-learned,” she said. “Let’s build on the work of Administrator [Jane] Garvey and [former House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee] Chairman [James] Oberstar by creating a culture of safety, making sure that aging infrastructure is not exempted from safety requirements, and keeping records not just for your successor, but for your successor’s successor.

“Taxpayers don’t have the option to buy a warranty on their local transportation project,” Hersman told the group. “This room holds the best insurance policy for our transportation system: You – the professionals that design, construct, maintain and regulate. Your legacy can be a transportation system that keeps America running – and running safer – for generations to come.”

Hersman pushed for continued investment in safety programs.

“The fact is, the outlook for increased funding for infrastructure projects is grim, and safety programs are in jeopardy as we face reduced federal spending,” Hersman said. “Right now, the real question for all of us is how hard these programs will be hit. It’s not my role as NTSB chairman to weigh in on funding sources, but when it comes to investing in safety, we can pay now, or we can pay later.”

One lesson I’ve learned through the years, it’s rarely more cost-effective to pay later.

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