Hersman's surprise departure comes as the NTSB is gearing up to
help with the investigation into the missing Malaysian Airlines
flight MH370, which disappeared on Saturday about an hour after it
took off from Kuala Lumpur with 239 passengers and crew.
The U.S. agency dispatched a team of investigators to Malaysia this
week, and is likely to be among the investigators analyzing the
aircraft's black box, if the flight recorder is located.
The NTSB took the lead on two of the biggest aviation investigations
in 2013: the battery fire problems that grounded Boeing Co's 787
Dreamliner aircraft for several weeks early in the year, and the
crash of an Asiana Airlines Inc jet at San Francisco International
Airport in July.
Hersman, 43, often traveled with NTSB investigative teams to the
site of major accidents and was the agency's public face at
briefings and news conferences.
"I look back at the hundreds of investigations and recommendations
that have been issued during my tenure at the NTSB and I have seen
the landscape of transportation safety improve before my eyes,"
Hersman said in a blog post.
Hersman will become president and chief executive officer of the
National Safety Council, a safety advocacy group based in Itasca,
Illinois, the group said in a statement.
Hersman was named a board member of the NTSB, an independent federal
agency with about 400 employees, in 2004 by President George W. Bush
and was appointed chairwoman in 2009 by President Barack Obama.
Among the non-aviation investigations led by Hersman have been those
involving a commuter train derailment in the Bronx, New York, in
December 2013 that killed four, and a collision between a tanker and
a container ship in the Houston Ship Channel in 2011.
Hersman's "reassuring confidence has helped lead this country
through some of our most difficult recent transportation accidents,"
said Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, where
she was raised.
"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," Rockefeller said.
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Hersman worked for the Senate Commerce Committee, chaired by
Rockefeller, for five years before joining the NTSB.
Campaigning against distracted, drunken and fatigued driving was
among her signature issues.
The NTSB raised the ire of automakers in 2011 by calling for a ban
on the non-emergency use of portable electronic devices for all
drivers. "Distraction, whether it's hands-free or handheld, whether
it's texting or talking, is deadly," Hersman wrote at the time.
"She was the first in the federal government to restrict the people
at the NTSB from being on the phone when the car was moving," said
Mark Rosenker, who chaired the agency from 2006 to 2008.
Christopher Hart, NTSB's vice chairman, will take over as acting
chairman when Hersman leaves on April 25.
Hart, an attorney and licensed pilot, has a long career in
transportation safety that includes a stint as deputy director for
air traffic safety oversight at the Federal Aviation Administration.
The National Safety Council is a nonprofit organization chartered
by Congress. It seeks to use education and research to prevent
accidental injury and death from incidents ranging from distracted
driving to workplace safety to prescription drug overdoses.
(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal;
editing by Ros Krasny, Bill
Trott and Mohammad Zargham)
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