Safety in the skies, and on the rails

American railroad and airplane passengers have a right to expect continued progress in safety, just as they anticipate forward movement in both speed and comfort. In recent years the safety expectation has been met, although some additional steps do remain which also ought to be taken.

A new report by the Air Transport Association says more Americans flew last year than in any previous one, and with the best safety record in 25 years. The trade group said there had been no domestic fatalities in the preceding 22 months of flights by US jet planes.

The overall picture of improved safety is similar on the American rails, despite a recent derailment in Vermont, with fatalities. A congressional committee this spring concluded after hearings that rail safety has improved substantially in recent years. In large part this is because of increased maintenance by individual railroads, stemming in turn from their generally stronger financial picture.

Both in the skies and on the rails, additional steps are being taken.

An experimental kind of radar is being tested in an effort to spot the sudden changes of wind direction and speed called wind shear, one of the most serious air safety problems. An improved flight simulator is being tested for training pilots to reduce human error, estimated to be a factor in two-thirds of plane accidents.

After the crash of an air commuter plane last fall, the Federal Aviation Administration moved quickly to check all planes for adherence to safety standards. The FAA is hiring needed additional air controllers. Efforts should be speeded up to replace the relatively old computer equipment that controllers use.

In recent years American railroads, like much of the rest of the nation, have replaced employees with technology. Nowadays sophisticated gear has replaced most of the men formerly charged with monitoring condition of tracks. Electronic sensors, plus close attention to weather reports, now let railmen know whether most of the nation's rails are intact.

One major safety need is to find effective ways to end the use by some train crews of alcohol and drugs, believed to have been a factor in some recent accidents. Whatever rules are promulgated by federal agencies, or laws passed by Congress, the key will be rigorous enforcement by the railroads and inspecting authorities.

Further, some grade crossings need to be improved, especially in lightly traveled areas, so that motorists can see far enough down the tracks to determine whether it is safe to cross them.

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