National Transportation Safety Board

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National Transportation Safety Board

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.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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