Shutdown stymies NTSB investigations into fatal crashes, prompting safety fears

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By Phil McCausland

Five children on their way to Disney World in Florida were killed in a major highway accident earlier this month, making national headlines and raising concerns about the condition of the guardrails involved. Despite the attention, however, state investigators have been left to examine that case without the aid of the National Transportation Safety Board.

That’s because 366 of the NTSB’s 397 employees are currently furloughed due to the longest government shutdown in American history, now in its fourth week.

The federal agency, which oversees investigations into transportation accident and crashes, said that it will pick up these probes as soon as it receives funding, but experts say that important evidence could be lost in the meantime.

As of Thursday, there were 14 accidents that the NTSB would normally have investigated but couldn’t because of the shutdown. Those accidents included 25 deaths and 17 injuries that came as a result of 10 plane crashes, one boat crash, two railway crashes and one major highway accident.

“People may die unnecessarily because [NTSB investigators] are unable to carry out their duties,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The NTSB is the federal government’s top investigative agency that looks into civil transportation accidents across the country. Its purview includes aviation, railroad and ship and marine accidents, as well as highway crashes and pipeline incidents.

The recommendations they make based on their investigations informs lawmakers and numerous agencies on necessary safety protocols.

Representative Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon and ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, during a hearing in Washington on Oct. 11, 2017.Olivier Douliery / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

“We don’t know what conclusion they would have come to or if they could have saved more lives by starting or finishing an investigation,” the chairman said. “They can’t even start — they’re just keeping a list.”

That could impact investigations down the line as a backlog is created, but it also means the NTSB won’t be able to gather valuable evidence.

“The main thing that we’re losing is perishable evidence that could be examined that we want to take a look at right after an accident happens: things like witnesses to be interviewed or tire marks in the roadway that can be erased with time,” said David Mayer, the CEO of Washington D.C.’s Metrorail Safety Commission who previously served as the managing director of the NTSB.

Because the majority of the agency’s employees are currently furloughed, investigators won’t be able to “to launch to major accidents, as well as other accidents where specific risks to transportation safety exists,” said Dolline Hatchett, acting director of the NTSB’s Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications.

“During the government shutdown and while agency employees are furloughed, launches to reported accidents will be considered on a case-by-case basis and when specific risks to transportation safety exists,” Hatchett said in a statement.

The furlough also meant the federal agency had to cut short its probe of three other accidents — two highway crashes and one train derailment — in which a total of eight people were killed.

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