Friday, March 25, 2022

Jennifer Homendy: National Transportation Safety Board chair escaped her smashed Subaru with a concussion, and many questions

Jennifer Homendy had only a moment to prepare before experiencing the type of collision she has tried to reduce

When Jennifer Homendy saw the Toyota RAV4 hurtling her way as she sat in Northern Virginia traffic, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board had only a moment to prepare before experiencing the type of violent collision she has tried to reduce across the country.

The former union official and Democratic staff director for the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Material was nominated by President Biden in May to lead the independent safety agency. On a morning in early November, sitting in her Subaru Crosstrek, she did not think she would walk away from what was coming.

She did, with a concussion and some bruising, but otherwise she was intact.

“I felt like that seat belt really saved my life,” Homendy said.

In an interview with The Washington Post, she discussed the agency’s work of trying to save lives through increasing safety on the nation’s roads, rails and airplanes — and how she grilled her teenage daughter’s school about bus safety before a field trip. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q: As someone who has talked a lot about cutting the nation’s road deaths from more than 38,000 a year to zero, how do you deal with the reality of how difficult that is while still trying to push people to get there?

A: There is this great video that Toward Zero Deaths did, where they interviewed people in different areas and said, “What do you think about zero? Could we ever get to zero?” And everybody’s response was, “No way. That’s never going to happen. It’s totally unrealistic. Why would that even be the goal?” And then they changed the question and asked, “What if it was your family member?” And they stopped and they were like, “Well, of course it should be zero! Why? I wouldn’t want them to die.” It’s interesting when you personalize it how different people feel.

For the NTSB, safety is our mission. It’s also personal. We’re the ones who are out there, when we investigate crashes, talking to the family members. And when we tell them that we’ve had a safety recommendation for five, 10, 15, 20, 30 years that would have prevented this crash had it been implemented, they’re astounded. It’s very hard for us to do. When I look at, ‘Is zero possible?’ Damn right, it’s possible.

It takes champions to really move safety, and that’s why we’re here. Part of that is through our safety investigations and part of that is through our advocacy and holding others accountable.

Q: Does the NTSB have further insights into what caused the wheel problems with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s 7000-series rail cars, and whether those problems are being seen in other transit systems?

A: My understanding is Metro is still working on a failure analysis to figure that out and working through the [Washington Metrorail] Safety Commission to move their plan forward. We have not been made aware of any other transit properties that have identified wheel migration.

Q: As a transportation reporter, I’m constantly warning my family to look out for this, be careful of that, pointing out dangers on the road. How do you deal with all these risks in your own life?

A: There’s always going to be risk in everything we do, literally everything we do all day long, whether it has to do with transportation or not. And it’s just making sure we’re informed and make decisions based on that information. There was a little battle in my household a few years ago where I caught my daughter riding her bike in the neighborhood without a helmet on. For me, that’s a no-go, right? I pulled her aside, and we talked about the importance of protection for your head. It was an educational moment.

She’s 14 now and going to a new school. She understands how focused I am on safety. I told her, “I’m going to have to ask the school about safety on the bus for field trips. Who’s operating it? Is it the school bus? Is it an outside operator for this trip? Are seat belts on the bus? You know, I’ve got some questions,” and she just rolls her eyes like, “Oh, there she is again.”

I was rear-ended in November by somebody going 45 or 50. I was stopped in Stafford County at about 6:30 a.m. It was not fully light out, and I was behind a long line of traffic at the stoplight and I saw somebody coming. There was an island on my left and traffic on my right. At that point, it was just sort of bracing for the crash. He hit me and then I hit the vehicle in front of me. There was damage all around. It really speaks to the safety of vehicles nowadays. I really thought, when I saw him coming, that I was probably not going to walk away.

Q: The roadway safety plan released by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg earlier this year relies on a “safe system” approach, something you have long advocated. How would you describe what that means to my mom or a teenager out there?

A: Everybody has a role to play, and it’s making sure everybody plays that role to save lives. That includes all stakeholders — federal, state and local governments; educators; public health officials; law enforcement; emergency responders; organizations that are invested in traffic safety. It’s everybody. In road safety, we tend to say, “Oh, it’s just all enforcement or it’s just all education.” In aviation, we got to zero for years because we took a holistic approach. That’s what’s needed on our roads. Imagine if we said, “It’s just the pilot,” without looking at everything else that could be done.

What’s the role [of] the manufacturer of that plane, the systems in the plane? How about the infrastructure? How about the safety culture at the airline? How about the policies that are in place? How about the federal regulators? Are they conducting adequate oversight? Do they have the authorities they need? Have they issued the appropriate regulations? All of that is what goes into saving that life. But in road safety, we seem to have this view, “Oh, it’s just a speeder or it’s just somebody who is impaired.” There are ways to address that, like by deterring drunk driving, as Utah did by lowering its blood-alcohol limit.

Q: It’s interesting to think about other things that could have that kind of impact.

A: So, take my crash. The person who hit me had a Toyota that should have had automatic emergency braking. Why it wasn’t working, I don’t know. It could have been turned off. There are no performance standards for automatic emergency braking. And then when the tow truck operators and the police showed up, they said to me, “Oh, there’s a crash here every week.” You know what that says to me? That there’s a problem with that road design. What do you mean there’s a crash here every week? Is the speed limit too high? Is there a problem with the curvature in that road when you come around the corner and all of a sudden you’re going down the hill and you have to stop at a stoplight? A lot of that can go into preventing a crash. That’s not reflected, by the way, in the crash reporting, and that is a problem.

“I felt like that seat belt really saved my life."

Q: Those factors aren’t included?

A: When the NTSB goes out and we do an investigation, it’s very in-depth. But the resources aren’t there to do it for millions of investigations of crashes on our roads. That’s where states and local governments really need to be proactive, including with road safety assessments. If there’s a high-risk area, they can go out and assess the area to see what is really causing all these crashes. In Bellevue, Wash., they made a small change in a traffic signal after walking the area, and it cut crashes at that intersection by 60 percent.

Q: Why did you want this job?

A: I love this agency. When I started on the Hill, I didn’t do pipelines and I called the Office of Pipeline Safety and said, “I need everything you’ve done back to 1968.” And they were like, “What?” I’ve always said, you have to know where we’ve been to know where we need to go. Then I called a guy named Bob Chipkevich who was the director of the NTSB’s Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Investigations. And I said, “Bob, I don’t know anything about pipelines.” He was so gracious with his time and just taught me about pipeline safety. And it was through that education, really, that I became so supportive of the NTSB and its safety mission. The agency is nonpolitical. I love that. We don’t look at anything through a political lens. We focus on facts. And our mission is to save lives. I can’t think of a better calling in life than to save a life, I really can’t.

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