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NTSB: D.C. Metro Incident Highlights Need To Improve Transit Safety

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NTSB: D.C. Metro Incident Highlights Need To Improve Transit Safety

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NTSB: D.C. Metro Incident Highlights Need To Improve Transit Safety

NTSB: D.C. Metro Incident Highlights Need To Improve Transit Safety

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The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a subway train incident in Washington, D.C., on Monday afternoon that left one person dead and sent dozens of passengers to local hospitals. On Tuesday, the NTSB also announced its so-called "Most Wanted List" of safety fixes for this year.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board are still looking into what caused a Washington, D.C. subway train to fill with smoke yesterday. One person died, and dozens more were sent to hospitals. The NTSB says the incident highlights the need to improve public transit safety in the U.S. And NPR's David Schaper reports that's one of the agency's top 10 priorities for 2015.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Witnesses describe a terrifying scene as thick smoke filled a subway tunnel and Metro station Monday afternoon.

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UNIDENTIFIED PASSENGERS: (Coughing).

SCHAPER: Jonathan Rogers recorded the chaos on his train with his smartphone and told the local Fox television affiliate that he helped lead fellow passengers to safety.

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JONATHAN ROGERS: Yeah, there was people - a couple women and children - that were panicking all throughout the train. You know, just instructed them to get down low, lower than the smoke. But the train - the whole train - the car was just full of smoke.

SCHAPER: National Transportation Safety Board investigators say there was no fire but an electrical arcing event that created the thick smoke, possibly caused by something coming in contact with the high-voltage third rail. Here's the NTSB's acting chairman, Christopher Hart.

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CHRISTOPHER HART: Our investigators completed their on-scene work at L'Enfant Plaza last night and will be documenting further evidence at the rail yard today. While unique, this event underscores the importance of the need to improve mass transit safety as reflected in this year's list.

SCHAPER: The list thing Hart is referring to is the NTSB's annual wish list of safety improvements announced at a previously scheduled news conference today. One of the top priorities is for transit agencies and railroads to implement a system called positive train control, which can override an operator and slow down or stop a train that's going too fast. There's no indication speed was a problem in the Washington Metro incident, but Hart says it has been in other train crashes.

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HART: Four people died and scores were injured in the December, 2013 Metro-North derailment in the Bronx. The train entered a 30 mile-an-hour curve going 82 miles an hour. Positive train control would have prevented this derailment.

SCHAPER: Federal law requires railroads and transit agencies to fully implement positive train control by the end of this year. But the railroads are asking Congress for a delay. Also long-delayed are new safety standards for rail tank cars that carry crude oil and other hazardous materials. The NTSB wants those soon and wants the Department of Transportation to quickly phase out older DOT-111s that are prone to rupture. And the NTSB wants more action to stop distracted driving. NTSB member Robert Sumwalt is calling for a ban on the use of all personal electronic devices while driving.

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ROBERT SUMWALT: Not just handheld but hands-free as well. We know that there's a cognitive distraction. We want visible enforcement of these laws.

SCHAPER: Other NTSB recommendations include lowering the illegal blood-alcohol level for drunk driving from 0.08 to 0.05 and studying the effects of other drugs on driving, among others. David Schaper NPR News.

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