National Transportation Safety Board

views updated Jun 11 2018


When the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was established in 1967, it was considered an independent federal agency. Nevertheless, NTSB's administrative support and funding were funneled through the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Over time, the need for a totally separate, nonreliant agency was recognized, and the 1975 Independent Safety Board Act severed all DOT ties.

Congress charges NTSB with investigating every U.S. civil aviation accident, as well as significant railroad, highway, marine, and pipeline accidents. NTSB, based on investigation findings, then issues safety recommendations in an effort to prevent future accidents.

NTSB differs from other agencies in that it has no official enforcement or regulatory powers, it is a totally independent agency, and its specially trained staff conducts investigations and determines probable cause. Its investigations are broad, looking more for the "big picture," rather than attempting to focus on a specific detail or category.

With fewer than 400 employees, NTSB is a small agency. It plays a large role, however, in maintaining and/or restoring public confidence in the safety of the nation's transportation systems. NTSB has investigated over 10,000 surface transportation accidents and more than 124,000 aviation accidents since it began operation in 1967.

The most important outcomes of NTSB investigations are the safety recommendations the agency issues based on investigation findings. NTSB has proven itself to be thorough and impartial and has been able to achieve an admirable (more than 80 percent) acceptance rate of recommendations made to various individuals and organizations in positions to effect change.

NTSB also uses accident-investigation findings to identify trends or issues that may otherwise be overlooked. Through proactive outreach efforts (e.g., conferences, symposia, and state advocacy), NTSB makes the public aware of potential safety problem areas, such as child safety seat concerns or accidents related to human fatigue factors.

Further, to address the needs of aviation disaster victims and their families, the role of integrating federal, local, and state authorities' resources with airlines resources was assigned to the NTSB in 1996. To fulfill this essential role, the NTSB established the Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance (originally called the Office of Family Affairs).

NTSB also enjoys an international leadership role, specifically in regard to accidents involving cruise ships or foreign-flag vessels in U.S. waters, or U.S. planes or U.S.-made aircraft overseas. NTSB has thus contributed significantly to increasing levels of safety for individuals worldwide.

To focus attention on NTSB recommendations with the potential to save the most lives, NTSB has created its "Most Wanted List" of improvements in transportation safety, which includes areas where rapid improvement is considered essential. This list includes requiring railroads to install collision avoidance systems, having natural gas distribution companies install excess-flow valves in high-pressure residential systems, having data recorders with increased parameters installed on ships and airplanes, and requiring fire detection and suppression equipment in airplane cargo compartments.

NTSB's safety recommendations have resulted in many safety improvements, and those in positions to serve as change agents have adopted more than 82 percent of NSTB recommendations. For instance, recommendations stemming from the ValuJet Flight 92 accident in Florida resulted in a DOT's Research and Special Programs Administration Agency (RSPA) rule prohibiting passenger-carrying aircraft from transporting oxygen generators as cargo. In the wake of natural gas pipeline accidents in Catskill, New York, and Allentown, Pennsylvania, cast-iron pipe monitoring and replacement programs were implemented by two major gas-distribution companies. The Federal Aviation Association (FAA) has acted to have Boeing 737 rudder systems modified based on NTSB recommendations stemming from the USAir Flight 427 incident in Pittsburgh. In response to an NTSB-issued emergency recommendation based on its 1996 Child Passenger Protection Study, the automobile industry attached labels and sent warning letters to owners about the dangers posed to children by air bags.

Recognizing a need for highly trained investigators, the NTSB Academy was established on the George Washington University campus in Ashburn, Virginia, in 2003. The academy provides training for both NTSB employees and representatives of the diverse transportation community. The academy curriculum is designed to facilitate objective, technically advanced, and independent investigations of transportation accidents, using critical thought, open and succinct communication, and application of evaluative techniques. This is accomplished through accident reconstruction and the collaborative efforts of first responders and compatible federal and state activities.

Additional information on the NTSB and other actions resulting from NTSB recommendations is available from NTSB at 490 L'Enfant Plaza SW, Washington, DC 20594; 202-314-6000; or

see also Consumer Advocacy and Protection ; Transportation

Mary Jean Lush

Val Hinton

National Transportation Safety Board

views updated May 11 2018


The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is a federal investigatory board headquartered in Washington, D.C., whose mandate is to ensure safe public transportation. Established in 1966 as part of the department of transportation, the NTSB investigates accidents, conducts studies, and makes recommendations to federal agencies and the transportation industry. It is chiefly known for its highly visible role in civil aviation accidents, which it has sole authority under federal law to investigate. Additionally, the NTSB probes certain marine accidents and accidents that occur in the use of railroads, highways, and pipelines. The five members of the board are appointed by the president.

The NTSB grew out of the long history of federal oversight of aviation. As early as 1926, Congress required the investigation of civil aviation crashes under the Air Commerce Act (Pub. L. No. 69-254, 44 Stat. 568). Over the next three decades, lawmakers created a maze of regulatory agencies, including the Civil Aeronautics Authority and the federal aviation administration (FAA). The Federal Aviation Act of 1958 (Pub. L. No. 85-726, 72 Stat. 731) gave duties for investigating accidents to the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), intending for the board to study aircraft and the actions of their pilots in the hopes of preventing future disasters.

As the airline industry grew, Congress reorganized its regulatory scheme. With passage of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 (Pub. L. No. 89-670, 80 Stat. 935), lawmakers created the NTSB within the Department of Transportation and gave it the responsibilities formerly held by the CAB. However, the NTSB often ended up conducting investigations of the FAA. In 1974, in an attempt to avoid conflicts between agencies, Congress made the NTSB an independent board by passing the Independent Safety Board Act of 1974 (49 U.S.C.A. app. § 1901 [1982]). The act gave the NTSB sole responsibility for investigating airline crashes.

The investigatory powers of the NTSB are quite broad. Once its teams are dispatched to the site of an accident, they maintain exclusive control over the scene. Their authority includes seizing all evidence for examination, including an airline's flight recorder (the so-called "black box"). They can also bar other parties from their proceedings—an important element of autonomy given the inevitable litigation that follows airline accidents. In subsequent stages of an investigation, the NTSB is empowered to demand records, testimony, and other information from airline officials. The purpose of its work is to prepare public reports of two types: factual reports and interpretive analyses of accidents to determine their probable cause.

The use of NTSB reports in court is controversial. Under federal law they are intended to be used to prevent future accidents from occurring, and therefore they are released to the public. But to a certain extent, they are forbidden by law from being used in civil lawsuits. Some form of this rule has been in effect since the creation of the CAB in 1958. Section 1441 (e) of the Independent Safety Board Act of 1974 stated, "No part of any report or reports of the National Transportation Safety Board relating to any accident or the investigation thereof, shall be admitted as evidence or used in any suit or action for damages growing out of any matter mentioned in such report or reports." However, courts have permitted civil litigants to use some NTSB report material, and the regulations have changed in response. Only the socalled probable cause reports are strictly impermissible in civil lawsuits, and NTSB employees are permitted only to testify as to factual matters surrounding their investigations. These limitations have upset some attorneys who argue that civil litigants should have full access to all NTSB data, but defenders have argued that the standard is necessary to protect the board's autonomy.

Since its creation in 1967, the NTSB has investigated over 114,000 aviation accidents and more than 10,000 surface transportation accidents. The organization has issued more than 11,600 recommendations regarding transportation safety to over 2,200 recipients. Many of these recommendations became the basis for safety features incorporated into surface, air, and water vehicles. Since 1990, the NTSB has highlighted various issues such as protecting child passengers, use of seat belts, and recreational boating safety in its "Most Wanted" list of transportation safety improvements. NTSB investigators are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,

traveling throughout the United States and all over the world to investigate major accidents.

further readings

Atwood, Roy Tress. 1987. "Admissibility of National Transportation Safety Board Reports in Civil Air Crash Litigation." Journal of Air Law and Commerce 53 (winter).

Cook, Joseph T. 1992. "Let Safety Board Give the Facts." National Law Journal (October 26).

National Transportation Safety Board. Available online at <> (accessed July 30, 2003).

U.S. Government Manual Website. Available online at <> (accessed November 10, 2003).


Airlines; Federal Aviation Administration.

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