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'Black Boxes' crucial to crash investigators

By Jim Hall
April 5th, 2010
Hall & Associates LLC


Tennessee Voices

Most American passengers realize when they step onto an airliner that they are traveling on the world's safest transportation system. But most never stop to ask why this is so. Is it our state-of-the-art aircraft? Our world-class pilots? Or is it the highly trained air traffic control staff that sees us safely to the ground?

It is all of these. But what most of us don't realize is that these finely tuned parts of the system did not come into being spontaneously. They are the result of a concerted effort at properly regulating and monitoring our nation's commercial air traffic.

The Federal Aviation Administration, charged with enacting and enforcing aviation rules, plays the role of the regulator, and the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates every accident and incident that occurs in our skies, serves as independent overseer.

Accident info should be made public

The relationship between accident investigation and safety is as old as aviation itself, when the Wright Brothers commissioned an investigation into the first ever fatal accident in 1905.

It has long been understood that the best way to prevent future accidents is for all concerned with safety to thoroughly understand the accidents of the past.

When it comes to automobile safety, government and industry subscribe to a different theory. This is evidenced by the many embarrassing pitfalls Toyota currently faces.

Reports of accelerator malfunction as long ago as 2007 were ignored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Toyota was able to successfully keep the incidents under wraps.

In testimonies before congressional committees last month, it became clear that both Toyota and NHTSA had not been forthcoming to the public about the scope of the malfunction and the extent to which a recall would address safety concerns. Now in the spotlight, NHTSA says it has eight open investigations into Toyota's automobiles. But this is clearly a case of too little, too late.

Because of NHTSA's past inaction, its ongoing investigations will not have the benefit of a sure-fire, existing technology that is already in place on these vehicles: event data recorders, the automobile equivalent of an aircraft's "black box."

Event data recorders — or EDRs —record events from five to 30 seconds before a crash, and soon afterward. They are critical to accident investigation, especially when allegations fly and the media hype up purported dangers. For most vehicles, there are standard procedures for downloading this data, and the information can be used by local authorities and safety officials to investigate accidents and incidents. Not so with Toyota's cars, which require a special technology to access EDR data. Because of Toyota's efforts at keeping this data secret and NHTSA's unwillingness to set industry-wide requirements for recorders, this vital information will likely not be utilized.

Black boxes are the best source of information after an aircraft accident. They don't rely on memory or anecdotes; all they do is report the facts. That's why when I was NTSB chairman we made numerous recommendations to increase the accuracy and survivability of information recorded on airlines' black boxes.

NTSB is best investigative source

The FAA moved on our recommendations and enacted higher standards for recorders across all makes and models of commercial aircraft. Furthermore, to prevent disputes between manufacturers, airlines and regulators, control of this black box data is handled by NTSB because of its independence as an investigator.

Compare this to Toyota's situation: The company owns the only laptop in the country that is capable of downloading recorder data, and according to testimony last week before a House Subcommittee, Toyota has not allowed NHTSA any access to the data it has downloaded.

Given that their dollars pay for these recorders and their lives hang in the balance, Toyota drivers deserve better. NHTSA should move to enact industry-wide standards regarding event data recorders and the data they contain. Furthermore, analysis of this data should be relegated to NTSB, an independent agency which has decades of experience with such devices and isn't hampered by ties to the industry.

Doing so will help ensure that next time a crisis like this occurs, government and industry will be ready to respond swiftly to protect our citizens' safety.

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