Human fatigue in transport accidents still unaddressed

Even though fatigue remains high on the FAA's list of topics to be fixed, solutions are not forthcoming

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When the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued its original “Most Wanted” list of proposed safety improvements in September 1990, combating the role of human fatigue in transportation mishaps was included. Since then, not a lot has happened. So when the NTSB released its most recent “Most Wanted” list in 2008, human fatigue was still there. ”Human fatigue has been a persistent factor in far too many transportation accidents,” said NTSB Acting Chairman Mark V. Rosenker in September 2008. “And, if anything, the problem is growing, not shrinking.” The main target of NTSB scrutiny, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), continues to provide what the 2007 “Most Wanted” list called an “unacceptable response” to the problem. In 1995, the FAA proposed a rule to update the flight and duty regulations for airline pilots, but no action has been taken. Likewise, the FAA recognized as a result of its own 2000 study that a quarter of airline maintenance personnel were fatigued or exhausted at work, but nothing has happened on that front either. The NTSB cites accidents such as Corporate Airlines Flight 5966, which killed 13 people near Kirksville, Missouri, in 2004, in arguing that measures to reduce fatigue are “long overdue.” For decades the NTSB has also pushed other components of the Department of Transportation (DOT) to act on fatigue. For instance, the NTSB urged the DOT to consider mandating the use of on-board recorders in the trucking industry to enforce compliance with hours-of-service rules and reduce fatigue-related accidents — such as a 2005 I-94 Wisconsin crash that killed five and injured 35 others. The DOT responded through its Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which proposed a rule be imposed only on carriers with a pattern of violation. NTSB believes the proposed rule, still pending, does not go far enough, but FMCSA said that the estimated costs imposed by a broader mandate would exceed its benefits. The U.S. Court of Appeals also struck down two FMCSA rules extending truckers’ daily driving limit from 10 to 11 hours. Meanwhile, an FAA spokesman said the agency continues to address fatigue concerns and pointed to an Aviation Fatigue Management Symposium it held this summer. "I think we all acknowledge that even with an outstanding safety record, we're not where we need to be when it comes to understanding and dealing with fatigue," said Acting Administrator Robert A. Sturgell at the forum.

Follow-up:
Congress has held hearings addressing fatigue in multiple modes of transport, and in October 2008 President Bush signed the Railroad Safety Enhancement Act, which addresses human fatigue factors for rail — a focus of the NTSB “Most Wanted” list in 2007. FMCSA issued a third rule in November 2008 again extending the truckers’ limit to 11. The agency said the rule would require at least 10 hours rest between shifts and is “based on an exhaustive scientific review.”

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