Published on March 12, 2014

NTSB chief, frequent critic of auto makers, to step down

(National Transportation Safety Board photo)
Deborah Ms. Hersman has frequently called for banning nearly all hands-free and hand-held cellphone calls in light vehicles.

Crain News Service staff and wire reports

WASHINGTON (March 12, 2014) — Deborah Hersman, the public face of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and a frequent critic of the auto industry, is stepping down to head a safety-advocacy group.

Ms. Hersman, 43, will become president and CEO of the National Safety Council, based in Itasca, Ill., the group said in a statement.

Ms. Hersman, who often clashed with auto makers and technology providers over in-vehicle communication, driver fatigue and driver distraction issues, and pushed for tougher drunk driving laws, plans to step down on April 25.

Under her guidance, the NTSB also considered recommendations such as new designs for automobiles and roads, and testing requirements for elderly motorists, to reflect the steady rise in U.S. drivers age 65 or older.

The NTSB recommends safety improvements for U.S. agencies to act upon. But it has no power to implement the recommendations.

“We have got to dispel the myth of multitasking,” Ms. Hersman said in early 2012 about the proliferation of electronic devices and communication services in light vehicles. “We are still learning what the human brain can handle. What is the price of our desire to be mobile and connected at the same time?”

In late 2012, the NTSB called on the U.S. government to mandate new safety technologies in all vehicles, a move that could dramatically reduce the number of fatalities caused by driver distractions. The agency has also strongly recommended collision warning systems on light vehicles since the mid 1990s.

Ms. Hersman also called for banning nearly all hands-free and hand-held cellphone calls in light vehicles.

“Too many people are texting, talking and driving at the same time,” Ms. Hersman told a Washington hearing in December 2011. “It’s time to put a stop to distraction. No call, no text, no update is worth a human life.”

Ms. Hersman was a regular visitor to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit to meet with auto makers and prod them to do more to prevent driver distraction and enhance light-vehicle safety.

Still, the U.S. government and many states have largely failed to adopt many of the safety board’s recommendations.

Vice Chairman Christopher Hart of the safety board, which investigates transportation accidents, will be acting chairman when Ms. Hersman leaves April 25, he said in a statement.

“I absolutely feel I am one of the luckiest people in the world to be able to do this, but it’s been 10 years,” Ms. Hersman said March 11 in an interview. “This was just an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.”

She steps down as the board is still investigating the cause of battery fires in Boeing Co. 787 Dreamliner planes, last year’s fatal Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco and the deadliest accident in the history of Metro-North Railroad.

The board also is assisting in the investigation of a missing Malaysia Airlines plane that air-traffic controllers lost sight of on March 8 as it flew to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur.

Until the Asiana accident, which killed three passengers, Ms. Hersman presided over a 4 1/2-year run of no commercial aviation fatalities in the U.S.

Didn’t sit

“The legacy for her is during that period of time, she did not let the agency sit and wait for things to happen,” Mark Rosenker, who preceded Ms. Hersman as the board chairman, said in an interview.

“When an opportunity like the National Safety Council comes along, this is one that could draw you away from public service. I’m not sure she was itching to leave. But when a dream job comes along, you take it.”

Ms. Hersman has been a regular on U.S. television news networks during her tenure as board chairman, particularly after the Asiana accident, raising the profile of one of the smallest independent U.S. agencies. The board has a bully pulpit without rulemaking authority, singling out causes of transportation accidents and making recommendations to companies and regulators about changes they should make so the same types of crashes don’t happen again.

Ms. Hersman last year was considered and passed over by President Barack Obama to be his transportation secretary. He chose former Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Anthony Foxx, who had hosted the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a mentor to Ms. Hersman, had advocated for her to get the job.

Elevating stature

As chairman, Ms. Hersman broadened the board’s mission to transportation risks such as drunk and drugged driving and fatigue across modes, rather than just responding to accidents.

“The biggest legacy for my chairmanship is I elevated the stature of the agency both to external stakeholders and to the public,” she said in the interview.

She cited Federal Aviation Administration rules on flight and duty time for pilots, new laws requiring booster-seat use for children, rest-time requirements for truck and train operators, and an international initiative looking at the safety of holding babies and toddlers on laps while flying as examples of successes.

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Bloomberg contributed to this report, which appeared on autonews.com, the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.

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