By Kelly Nantel
Not everybody can endear themselves to an audience that includes highway patrol and local police officers by telling them how soon they will show up at a crash scene and how long they will stay.
But Jennifer Morrison, an investigator-in-charge with the NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety, recently did just that.
“You can expect we will be to the scene of the crash investigating all these areas within 12–24 hours and stay for 7–10 days,” she said.
Jennifer and I were speaking to the Lifesaver’s National Conference on Highway Safety Priorities in Chicago – or simply “Lifesavers.”
The conference attendees included law enforcement officers, state transportation officials, and safety advocates. Lifesavers is the largest gathering of national highway professionals in the United States. Each year, the conference provides a forum for the presentation of proven countermeasures and initiatives that address today’s critical highway safety issues.
Jennifer and I were thrilled to speak at one of the conference’s first sessions, “Who is the NTSB and Why are They at the Scene of My Crash?” The session focused on when and why the NTSB shows up at an accident scene and the challenges of coordinating an NTSB safety investigation alongside a parallel police-led criminal investigation.
As Jennifer explained, the severity of an accident does not by itself dictate whether the NTSB will pursue such an investigation. If the accident can shed light on a pressing highway safety issue, the NTSB might investigate even if there are no fatalities.
While the NTSB often covers high-profile events and receives considerable media attention for its activities, what goes on behind the scenes is often misunderstood—or not known. We aimed to demystify the NTSB investigative process and to share some real-world experiences from safety investigations that we have conducted in parallel with police investigations.
Jennifer described how the NTSB uses a multi-disciplinary team approach that covers five key areas: human performance, survival factors, motor carrier operations, highway factors, and vehicle factors.
As Jennifer explained, sometimes the NTSB arrives on scene even quicker than within12-24 hours. In the case of a median crossover crash that killed four members of the North Central Texas College softball team last September, the NTSB contacted Captain Ronnie Hampton of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol within 2 hours of the crash, and federal investigators were on scene within 10 hours.
Captain Hampton joined us to share his experience working with NTSB. He told his counterparts, “We learned a lot by working with NTSB, how they break work down by disciplines. They are not gun-toting law enforcement officers. They are there to ID safety issues, whereas we aim to enforce the law and bring any necessary charges against the drivers.”
Master Sergeant Robert Story of the Illinois State Police echoed a similar beneficial experience from working with NTSB on a crash that killed eight on an Illinois Interstate in 2003. “They are a great connection for law enforcement. Our relationship with NTSB gave us additional contacts and resources,” he said.
Both Hampton and Story echoed the belief that NTSB was sensitive to their ongoing criminal investigations. “They are looking for causation, looking at it as an accident,” Story told conference attendees, “we look at it as a crash where someone possibly violated the law.”
Throughout the session, I emphasized the importance of collaboration and information sharing among the NTSB and law enforcement during an investigation.
This was echoed by McHenry County, Illinois, Assistant State’s Attorney Donna Kelly, who explained that NTSB investigators are not meant to be “regulars” in the court room, so requesting their testimony is tricky. The NTSB is specifically charged with uncovering the causes of accidents and making recommendations, not with placing fault or blame.
We also stressed the importance of our “party system” to our investigations. The NTSB designates other organizations as parties to the investigation, including agencies of local, state, or federal government; private companies; or others. For highway investigations, the NTSB has complete discretion over which organizations it designates as parties. Only those organizations that can provide expertise to the investigation are granted party status, and only those persons who can provide needed technical or specialized expertise are permitted to serve on the investigation.
Most important to the success of an investigation, perhaps, is the NTSB’s independence. The NTSB is an independent Federal investigation agency. In other words, we are not affiliated with other government agencies, because we often make recommendations to them. These recommendations aim to make highways safer and ultimately save lives.
And that’s one of the many things all attendees at the Lifesavers Conference have in common: we are all in this life-saving business together.