NTSB: 50 Years of Asking “Why?”

By Acting Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

NTSB 50th Anniversary commemerative emblemFifty years ago, on April 1, 1967, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) came into existence, helping to fulfill President Lyndon B. Johnson’s pledge to ensure the safety of Americans on land, sea, and air.

In 1966, Johnson recommended the creation of a single Department of Transportation (DOT), bringing together the functions of many far-flung agencies. He also urged

…that there be created under the Secretary of Transportation a National Transportation Safety Board independent of the operating units of the Department. The sole function of this Board will be the safety of our travelers. It will review investigations of accidents to seek their causes. It will determine compliance with safety standards. It will examine the adequacy of the safety standards themselves… I consider the functions of this Board so important that I am requesting authority from Congress to name five Presidential appointees as its members.

. . .

No function of the new agency—no responsibility of its Secretary—will be more important than safety.

Indeed, between March 2, 1966, and the NTSB’s birth the following year, there was a spate of disastrous commercial aviation crashes, either on US soil or involving US-built aircraft, together taking the lives of hundreds of passengers. This was not extremely unusual for this era; sometimes multiple fatal aviation accidents happened during the same month.

At the same time, the roads were full of automobiles that could never be sold under today’s safety standards. Most cars had no seat belts, and those that did generally had them in the front seat only. Air bags and child safety seats had not made their way into production. Drunk driving laws and enforcement were permissive, and even with far fewer cars on the roads, there were far more crash deaths.

Before the NTSB, major accidents in aviation were investigated by a section of the Civil Aeronautics Board, or CAB. Accidents in other modes of transportation might be investigated by a special subcommittee or jury, but there was no agency to coordinate these efforts or to collect the various findings and analyze them.

The written testimony of government officials in favor of creating the NTSB put it this way: “There is no single official in the entire Government who is in a position to identify, study, and propose solutions to transportation problems.”

The NTSB was established to ask “why?” when an accident happened, and to ask “why not?” Why not improve regulations, training, or a certain aspect of the vehicle or the environment? Even in its infancy, NTSB reports included, as they do today, recommendations to prevent future accidents, often pointing industry and regulators toward a safer future. Although action on NTSB recommendations is purely voluntary, more than 80% of our recommendations are acted upon favorably.

However, like the CAB investigators of its immediate predecessor in aviation, the NTSB initially was part of a larger agency that also concerned itself with operations and regulations. Although NTSB independence has been spelled out since its inception, the Board still came under the purview of the Secretary of Transportation. This arrangement put the NTSB in the position of investigating actions of its own parent agency and its constituent modal administrations. In 1974, Congress passed the Independent Safety Board Act of 1974, which, effective April 1, 1975, made the NTSB independent of the DOT, removing any concern that the regulator was, effectively, investigating itself.

Since our inception, we can point to numerous improvements that the NTSB has recommended as the result of accident and crash investigations in aviation, marine, highway, railroad, and pipeline transportation. The NTSB’s work throughout our 50-year history is responsible for the transformational improvements that make transportation safer for all of us today. But, by design, we can only take partial credit for any such improvement. We have no authority to regulate: only to recommend.

So, in celebrating our 50th anniversary, we also celebrate those who read our investigations and recommendations, agreed with us, and made the improvements happen, as well as those who made things not happen. Together, we avoided preventable accidents. We saved lives that didn’t have to be lost in the first place. We kept property intact that did not have to be damaged, and prevented injuries that didn’t need to be sustained (and the medical costs and loss of productivity that go with them).

The transportation industry is focused on a future with zero accidents. The men and women of the NTSB are committed to this vision and will continue to investigate accidents and to make recommendations that will help future generations enjoy an era free from transportation accidents.

As new technologies and transportation fields come into existence—from autonomous vehicles to commercial space launches, and beyond—we look forward to the next 50 years of transportation safety improvements.

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