The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is an independent agency of the federal government responsible for investigating civil aviation accidents and serious railroad, highway, marine, and pipeline accidents. The NTSB also reviews licensing and certification matters related to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and, in an effort to prevent accidents, issues transportation-related safety recommendations. The NTSB, however, has no regulatory or enforcement powers nor does it make a determination as to the rights and liabilities of parties involved in the accidents it investigates.
The NTSB was established in 1967 as an independent agency but initially relied on the DOT for funding and administrative support. The NTSB became truly independent on April 1, 1975, when the Independent Safety Board Act of 1974 went into effect. This act dissolved all ties between the board and the DOT. The NTSB is administered by five board members appointed by the president for fiveyear terms.
The NTSB is responsible for investigating a wide range of transportation and pipeline accidents. During an investigation, the agency determines the probable cause, reports the facts and circumstances of the accidents, and when necessary issues safety recommendations. The NTSB has the authority to investigate all U.S. civil aviation accidents; all railroad accidents where there is a fatality, substantial property damage, or a passenger train involved; all pipeline accidents where there is a fatality or substantial property damage; and, in cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard, major marine casualties and marine accidents involving both public and nonpublic vessels. These investigations, reports, and recommendations are made in relation to the NTSB's mission of saving lives through the prevention of transportation-related accidents. Besides the U.S. Coast Guard, the NTSB works closely with many federal agencies including the DOT, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Rules governing NTSB activities can be found in Chapter VIII, Title 49, of the Code of Federal Regulations.
When accidents occur that appear to fall within the NTSB's authority, the parties involved must notify the agency, as stipulated in the Code of Federal Regulations. These regulations specify when notification is mandated, outline the time parameters on notification, and specifically define such terms such as "accident." These regulations also prescribe information that must be included in the notification. The notification is made to the NTSB's National Response Center which then passes it on to the relevant NTSB office such as the Office of Aviation Safety. A decision is quickly made as to whether or not more information is needed and whether the accident falls under NTSB jurisdiction. If the accident is to be investigated, it may be treated as a major or regional investigation.
In all major investigations a NTSB team of technical experts is sent to the accident site. Major investigations are broad and far-reaching in scope and the team is often accompanied by one of the five board members. A major investigation usually takes nine months to a year to complete. Regional investigations are headed by an investigator from one of three regional NTSB offices and the report takes about six months to complete. All accidents reports, be they regional or major, are made public.
The first step in any investigation is to designate parties to the investigation and their responsibilities as described in the Code of Federal Regulations. Parties to the investigation are defined as "those persons, government agencies, companies and associations whose employees, functions, activities, or products were involved in the accident and who can provide qualified technical personnel to actively assist in the field investigation." Teams investigating accident sites often test equipment and components involved in the accident; review records and interview witnesses and technical experts; and conduct on-scene tests such as simulations and reenactments of the accident.
In pursuit of its mission the NTSB has investigated more than 100,000 aviation accidents and thousands of surface transportation accidents. The board has also issued more than 10,000 transportation-related safety recommendations of which approximately 80 percent have been adopted. NTSB safety recommendations are based on its own studies and investigations and range from special training for flight attendants in emergency situations to the construction of railroad tank cars that carry chemicals.
The NTSB also evaluates the safety policies and procedures of other government agencies with respect to transportation safety and accident prevention. In the area of hazardous materials, for instance, the NTSB reviews and investigates safeguards and procedures concerning their transportation and evaltiates the performance of government agencies charUged with the safe transportation of these materials.
[ Michael Knes ]
Goglia, John. "The Investigation Process." Mass Transit, March/April 1998, 54.
National Transportation Safety Board. "Natioirnal Transportation Safety Board." Washington: National Transportation Safety Board, 1998. Available from www.ntsb.gov .