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LaHood: DOT moving aggressively to respond to NTSB proposals

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LaHood: DOT moving aggressively to respond to NTSB proposals

David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington -- The Transportation Department said Friday it is moving aggressively to respond to safety recommendations made by a government watchdog agency.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said his department -- which includes regulatory agencies overseeing the nation's vehicles, airplanes, roadways, railroads and pipelines -- has worked to respond quickly to safety recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board.

"When we came in and saw the fact that these NTSB recommendations had been languishing for so long, we just said, 'We've got to clear this up. We've got to get with it,'" LaHood said in an interview.

Data obtained by The Detroit News shows that the Transportation Department has closed 96 recommendations so far this year -- compared with 60 in both 2008 and 2009.

The department is working to close the remaining 768 recommendations that are open.

Of those, the Transportation Department said 435 have received "acceptable" responses -- but not complete -- and 152 -- or about 20 percent -- were labeled "unacceptable." NTSB issued 240 new recommendations in 2009 -- with 138 for aviation issues.

Earlier this month, the heads of Transportation Department safety agencies met with NTSB to discuss the status of safety recommendations.

NTSB board chairwoman Debbie Hersman said the board is committed to pushing the department to move faster, but acknowledged that many requests aren't easy to implement.

"While the NTSB would prefer to see less talk and more action on our recommendations, we recognize that we often ask for things that are complicated, expensive or difficult to implement," she said.

Those proposals have helped prod the government into thousands of safety improvements since the NTSB's creation in 1967.

It's also investigated 133,000 aviation accidents and thousands of surface accidents over its four-decade history.

NTSB labels a response "unacceptable" if the board doesn't agree with the Transportation Department's proposed course of action -- or its pace of action.

The NTSB makes safety recommendations, but can't force agencies to comply. Congress requires agencies to respond to the proposals within 90 days.

The NTSB keeps a list of "Most Wanted" recommendations that it updates every February.

This month, LaHood and Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Randy Babbitt proposed a new regulation to fight fatigue among commercial pilots by setting new flight time, duty and rest requirements in the wake of the crash of Colgan Air 3407 in February 2009.

"That flight and duty rule sat around for 10 years," LaHood said, defending the administration's effort to get a new regulation in place. "We put together a good rule -- and that can be said for other rules also."

He said the department has been willing to take on big companies to fight for safety changes.

LaHood noted the government's vigorous handling of Toyota Motor Corp.'s sudden acceleration complaints over the last year. NHTSA fined Toyota $16.4 million for delaying a recall by at least four months.

LaHood recounted that he green-lighted then acting NHTSA administrator Ron Medford in late 2009's request to go Japan to meet with Toyota about a number of safety issues.

"When Ron came to me and said, 'We're having trouble with Toyota and the safety of their cars,' we took on Toyota. Nobody's ever done that," LaHood said.

NTSB has also called for new auto technologies like adaptive cruise control and collision warning systems in commercial trucks, buses and passenger vehicles, saying it will substantially reduce accidents.

The Transportation Department says its response to some NTSB recommendations requires rulemakings -- a legal regulatory process that can take years to complete. They also argue that in some cases the technology doesn't exist to respond to some recommendations.

It pointed to an NTSB proposal that the FAA developed and implemented changes to reduce the flammability of fuel tanks. It took eight years of research, followed by three years of rule-making to complete the regulation.

The Transportation Department also lacks the legal authority to carry out some NTSB recommendations. The Obama administration has proposed transit safety legislation that would give the Federal Transit Administration more power to carry out recommendations on hours of service, rail vehicle emergency features and rail-crash worthiness.

The Transportation Department complained that NTSB requires all responses to be sent by physical mail -- and not e-mail -- a move that delays processing of responses.

In a March 12 letter to Hersman from Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari, he said his department meets weekly to discuss unresolved NTSB recommendations.

He noted that the NTSB website doesn't always reflect that the department has responded to recommendations.

The department said in a statement that "the NTSB website does not reflect the arrival of a DOT response until the NTSB has taken action on that response. Since it can take well more than a year for the NTSB to process a DOT response, the NTSB website does not always accurately reflect the status of open recommendations."

From The Detroit News: http://www.detnews.com/article/20100926/AUTO01/9260303/1148/auto01/LaHood--DOT-moving-aggressively-to-respond-to-NTSB-proposals#ixzz10joz93pA

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