WASHINGTON – Deborah Hersman, departing chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Monday that "one of her great disappointments" was not requiring child-safety seats on planes for young children.
During a farewell speech at the National Press Club after 10 years on the board, Hersman recalled the different outcomes for two children aboard United flight 232, which crashed in 1989 in Sioux City, Iowa. The crash killed 185 people, but 111 survived.
Two sets of parents with small children were told to brace for impact by placing infants on the floor cushioned with blankets.
But the plane approached the runway at 240 mph, cartwheeled and caught on fire, and parents were unable to find the children when evacuating. Another passenger heard an 11-month-old girl crying and carried her out.
"Those mothers couldn't hold onto their babies," Hersman said. "Nobody could have."
She was joined on the dais by Jan Brown, a flight attendant who blocked another parent from going back into the burning plane to look for her 22-month-old son, who died. Brown has lobbied for 25 years to require child-safety seats for children on planes, but the Federal Aviation Administration hasn't adopted the requirement.
"When I came the board in 2004, it was almost unbelievable that that was still allowed to go on," Hersman said of unbelted children on airliners, in contrast to state laws requiring child-safety seats in cars. "They're just as valuable in the airplane as they are in the car."
She is leaving the NTSB to become head of the National Safety Council, where she hopes to continue advocating on a broad range of safety issues.
Hersman said transportation is very safe. She cited safety improvements since the Sioux City crash with helping limit the deaths to three in the crash-landing of Asiana Airlines flight 214 in San Francisco in July 2013.
Technology to avoid aviation collisions and to warn pilots when they are too close to the ground have prevented crashes where people failed in the past, Hersman said.
But she said safety always can be improved.
• For cars, she said manufacturers have collision-avoidance technology, with automation for brakes and cruise control. But she said it must be installed on more than just the most expensive vehicles.
• For buses, Hersman said more people travel on motorcoaches each year than on planes. But she said regulators and the industry must weed out bad companies to reduce the number of crashes.
• For railroads, the NTSB is holding a two-day hearing Tuesday and Wednesday to review rail safety as more oil is shipped by train. She said common tanker cars aren't designed to haul hazardous materials.
"We've got to get on top of it," Hersman said. "We aren't prepared."