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Safety Board Highlights Need for Transportation Improvements

by David Koenig .
Tuesday Feb 5, 2019
In this Dec. 18, 2017, file photo National Transportation Safety Board Member Bella Dinh-Zarr speaks at a news conference at the National Transportation Safety Board headquarters in Washington
In this Dec. 18, 2017, file photo National Transportation Safety Board Member Bella Dinh-Zarr speaks at a news conference at the National Transportation Safety Board headquarters in Washington  (Source:AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, FIle)

Federal safety officials say they want a crackdown on impaired and distracted drivers, wider use of collision-avoidance technology in cars, and tougher regulations for operators of air tours and medical flights.

The National Transportation Safety Board laid out a wish list Monday to improve safety on roads, trains and in the sky.

Chairman Robert Sumwalt said the list was driven by data from accidents that the board investigates.

"It is written in blood," he said.

The safety board investigates accidents and suggests ways to prevent similar crashes. The agency planned to unveil its top issues last month but was delayed by the government shutdown caused by a standoff over President Donald Trump's demand for border-wall funding.

Sumwalt said the 35-day shutdown delayed the start of 97 crash investigations. In some cases, he said, wreckage was removed before investigators could finally arrive, and "We may have lost potential live-saving information."

The safety board has no power to write regulations, and over the years its suggestions have often been rebuffed by other agencies. The board has 1,200 pending recommendations that have not been acted on by agencies including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The board's frustration has grown deeper during the Trump administration, which has sought to reduce regulations on industry. The administration has held up proposals to require electronic speed-capping software in new heavy trucks and require auto makers to equip future cars and light trucks with vehicle-to-vehicle communications to prevent collisions.

In Washington, board members announced their list of topics they want addressed by new rules in the next two years. The list would cover cars and trucks, trains, planes and pipelines. They declined to rank the list. Among the items:

— A crackdown on distracted and impaired drivers. The board favors a ban on drivers using either hand-held or hands-free mobile phones except in emergencies. It recommends a blood-alcohol limit of 0.05 percent — a common standard now is 0.08 percent — and requiring any driver convicted of drunk driving to use a device that prevents him from starting the car after drinking.

— Require automakers to make collision-avoidance technology standard in all new vehicles. Sumwalt said such systems could save nearly 1,000 lives a year.

— More training and other requirements to increase regulation of operators of charters, air tours, air taxis and medical flights. Passengers don't understand that these operations aren't required to meet the same safety standards as airlines, Sumwalt said.

— Install GPS-based technology called positive train control that is designed to prevent collisions like the Amtrak train that hit a parked CSX freight train last year in South Carolina, killing two Amtrak employees. Congress mandated the technology by the end of last year, but compliance has been spotty and the deadline has been extended.

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