By David Shepardson


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board on Monday urged federal regulators to improve oversight of rail transit systems following a series of accidents and urged logistical improvements to prevent train passenger deaths and injuries in crashes.


NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said at a press conference that U.S. mass transit has "gone for decades without any systematic oversight."


The board cited the crash in Chicago of a train that collided with the bumping post at O'Hare International Airport, injuring 33, and the January 2015 incident in Washington's subway system in which heavy smoke from electrical arcing led to one death and 92 injuries as part of why it wants stronger oversight.


"Creating and enforcing safety standards and accountability in rail safety oversight will compel transit agencies to address safety issues and increase system maintenance," the NTSB said.


The board also said says train deaths could be prevented with improved railcar crashworthiness, including better window retention. The NTSB also said better evacuation procedures could have minimized injuries and prevented deaths.

The NTSB is an independent agency that proposes safety fixes, but does not have enforcement powers. The board is also investigating the crash of a Sept. 29 New Jersey Transit train that killed one and injured over 110 in Hoboken, New Jersey.

The NTSB in its annual review of highest priority transportation safety issues also recommended calling for new efforts to eliminate distractions in transportation crashes, including vehicle accidents.

Many of those accidents are the result of inattentive drivers looking at their mobile phones, and the board wants states to toughen laws against using cellphones or texting behind the wheel.

The board again called for improved efforts to ensure the safe shipment of hazardous materials, including lithium batteries.

U.S. highway deaths in 2015 jumped by 7.2 percent - the highest single-year percentage rise in 50 years - to 35,092 and were up 10.4 percent in the first half of this year, the NTSB said.

In 2012, the NTSB called on states to ban all hands-free and handheld cellphone calls. None have done so, but more than 100 other countries have lowered blood alcohol levels. The following year, the NTSB called on U.S. states to reduce the legal blood alcohol level limit by nearly 40 percent to 0.05 percent.

Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB board member, said it will take "guts" by state legislatures to "do the right thing" to take those steps to boost safety.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Meredith Mazzilli, G Crosse)