NTSB doesn’t consider economics, just safety

At the Passenger Vessel Association annual convention in St. Louis in February, I learned a thing or two about the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

In her address to convention attendees, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman delivered a compelling speech about safety across all transportation modes, not just maritime.

Hersman made it crystal clear that the NTSB’s mission is focused on safety and nothing but safety. When the NTSB makes safety recommendations, it does so without considering its possible cost. The “balancing” of safety recommendations and economics is outside of the NTSB’s mission. Agencies such as the Coast Guard or the private sector perform any necessary cost-benefit analyses and then decide whether to implement NTSB safety recommendations. If the answer is yes, they must then determine how best to implement the NTSB’s suggestions.

According to Hersman, the NTSB realizes that all of its recommendations will not be implemented — or at least not right away. The NTSB, she said, sometimes proposes safety equipment or measures that, at present, are not technologically or commercially available at an affordable cost. In these cases, the NTSB’s goal is that the recommendations will provide the impetus for future technological or commercial developments.

Hersman acknowledged that passenger vessel operators must take many things into account other than safety. After all, she said, “The safest passenger vessel is the one that never sails from the dock.”

Unlike the Coast Guard, the NTSB does not have a mandate to take factors other than safety into consideration. That’s why the Coast Guard goes through a lengthy public process when it proposes a new safety rule. It seeks comments not only on the substance of its proposed regulation(s), but also on its economic impact. By analyzing the potential economic impact of a proposed rulemaking, it doesn’t mean that the Coast Guard is downplaying safety. They are simply doing what the law calls for, and what the private sector expects.

Unfortunately, many don’t realize that the NTSB does not “vet” its recommendations for their economic impact. For example, a plaintiff’s attorney who should certainly know better may accuse a passenger vessel operator of being “against” safety for failing to implement an NTSB recommendation.

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