NTSB’s Hersman Quits for Safety Group Amid Crash Probes

Deborah Hersman, the public face of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board who fought last year to be nominated for another term as chairman, today said she’s stepping down to head a safety-advocacy group.

Hersman, 43, will become president and chief executive officer of the National Safety Council, based in Itasca, Illinois, the group said in a statement. Vice Chairman Christopher Hart of the safety board, which investigates transportation accidents, will be acting chairman after Hersman leaves on April 25, he said in an e-mailed statement.

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

Hersman 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 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, 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 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.”

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.

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

‘Reassuring Confidence’

Before joining the safety board, Hersman was a staff member of the Senate Commerce Committee. Rockefeller today praised her work on the board.

“Her reassuring confidence has helped lead this country through some of our most difficult recent transportation accidents, from last summer’s tragic plane crash in San Francisco to this winter’s terrible series of incidents on Metro-North,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “Whenever there was a transportation accident, I always trusted that Debbie would put the full weight of the NTSB behind any investigation, and she would be tireless in working to uncover the facts.”

Obama nominated her for another term as chairman on Aug. 1, two days before her previous term was to end.

Elevating Stature

As chairman, Hersman broadened the board’s mission to transportation risks such as drunk and drugged driving and fatigue among pilots, truckers and train operators, 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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