TSB Feature Articles

This article was published in The Hill Times, Policy Briefing, Transportation & Infrastructure, February 9, 2009

Safe transportation is a right

May 2009
by Wendy A. Tadros – Chair, Transportation Safety Board of Canada

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) leads the world in accident investigation and the protection of safety information. In this practice note, we will discuss the role of the TSB and how it advances transportation safety. We will also examine the protections in place for information received by the TSB and the public policy reasons behind the protection of this information. Lastly, we will discuss what can happen when other organizations seek to use the same information for other purposes and the key court rulings in this area.

Each year, about 4,000 transportation occurrences are reported to the TSB. They often involve loss of life and severe damage and may occur in remote mountainous areas of the country or in our populated cities. They range from aircraft missing runways to pipeline bursts, to train derailments and, to ships running aground. The minute the TSB is alerted, we collect and assess the facts to determine if a full-fledged investigation is warranted. This decision is based on the potential to advance transportation safety and reduce the risk to Canadians. Whether we conduct a full investigation or not, we track all of the information collected—from all occurrences reported to us—in the TSB database. We continuously analyse this data to identify emerging trends and areas for further study.

Transportation accidents are unpredictable—they can happen at any time of day, anywhere in Canada and TSB investigators are always ready to go. Our strength is our people. TSB's dedicated experts come from diverse professional backgrounds and they are what make us a respected world leader in accident investigation.

On site, the work of Mother Nature and the absence of survivors can make this job challenging. Training, experience and the latest investigative techniques enable investigators to examine and chronicle the wreckage so they can come to a clear understanding of the sequence of events. These analytical minds look carefully at all of the factors at play including the human factors to determine not only what happened on the day of the accident but why it happened.

To do this, TSB investigators need to learn everything they can and that is why the Canadian Transportation Accident Investigation and Safety Board (CTAISB) Act, allows for searches, the seizure of evidence, and the gathering of human evidence through witness statements and on-board recordings.

The task of assembling physical evidence differs from the challenge of gathering evidence from individuals who know about the circumstances of an accident. The TSB takes great pains to explain that our role is not to find fault, to lay blame or to seek reprisals. Rather, we are investigating to uncover safety lessons with the aim of ensuring it will never happen again. As more is understood about the TSB, those involved almost always feel they can tell investigators what they know.

The CTAISB Act protects this evidence and you will find similar protections for our draft investigation reports and for the submissions we receive on these reports. Honouring these fundamental protections ensures that human evidence will be there for future investigations—and we may continue to advance transportation safety.

The TSB also searches for pervasive problems in the transportation system. Investigators will compare the facts of the investigation they are currently working on with past accidents to determine if the deficiencies they found pose a widespread risk to the transportation system. When these risks are identified, the Board then makes recommendations to make the system safer. When we find deficiencies requiring swift action, we do not wait for our final report. We quickly communicate our concerns to operators, manufacturers and governments.

Many TSB investigations can be credited with changing operating practices, equipment or the laws governing the transportation industry. These changes advance transportation safety and mean more Canadians will reach their destinations safely, both at home and abroad.

That being said, the TSB is neither a law maker nor a court and we do not impose changes. Our role will always be to inform the public about what happened, why it happened and to suggest solutions. Transportation safety is a shared responsibility and the TSB acts as a catalyst to convince industry and government to eliminate the safety deficiencies we find. We keep the issues alive by tracking the progress made on our recommendations, by liaising regularly with those who can bring about change and by speaking out when we think not enough has been done.

Our independence, the skill and dedication of our staff and our thorough investigation methodology have made the TSB a world leader in transportation accident investigation. We exist for only one reason: to advance a safe and sound transportation system on our waterways, along our pipelines and railways and in our skies.