To enable public transit agencies to engage in more "rigorous and effective safety planning," a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that their safety planning records "should not be admissible as evidence" in civil litigation.
The NAS committee that conducted the study and wrote the report added that state highway agencies and commuter railroads currently enjoy such "evidentiary protections" and thus there is "no compelling reason" to advise Congress against current practice by treating transit agencies differently.
"Shielding certain safety planning and management records from use in court would help transit agencies critically analyze and improve the safety of their systems," said Michael Townes, the committee's chair. "In turn, transit agencies should strengthen their public accountability by improving their transparency, making their records freely available to outside safety analysts and the public at large."
In 2016, the Federal Transit Administration issued a proposed rule that would require operators of public transportation systems that receive Federal financial assistance to develop and implement safety plans that, among other things, would establish "performance targets" for minimizing fatalities and injuries while bolstering system reliability via "state of good repair" standards. While that rule has not been finalized, the NAS committee's recommendations would seek to prevent such plans from being used against a public transit agency in court.
The committee, however, did recommend that "admissibility protections" be "narrowly construed" to target the specific concern of liability. That basically means planning records produced by transit agencies in response to Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century or "MAP-21" mandates should not be shielded from public disclosure generally, while the Federal Transit Administration "should encourage" such public disclosure.
"While the public transit industry in the U.S. has a generally strong safety record, several high profile incidents in recent years raised concerns over inadequate state and federal oversight and an absence of safety management systems and weak safety cultures within transit agencies," the report noted. That's one reason why MAP-21 ordered FTA to "establish and enforce" a new comprehensive safety oversight framework for the 6,800 public transit systems receiving federal funds, NAS noted.
To further promote transparency, the committee urged that there should be no changes made to reduce the availability of safety planning records under federal and state open records laws, and every effort should be made to ensure that safety plans and data, even when subject to evidentiary protections, be made freely available to the public.
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