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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.
“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.
NTSB also sends its investigators to assist in crash investigations abroad when the military or a foreign government requests it.
This came up on Monday when officials announced that Navy divers found the cockpit voice recorder of the Lion Air Boeing 737 that crashed into the Java Sea in October, killing 189.
NTSB brought back three investigators from furlough to help with the ongoing investigation, sending them to Jakarta, Indonesia. They remain unpaid for their work supporting Indonesian investigators, but the federal government did pay for their travel.
“The costs for this effort was permitted because work on the Lion Air investigation addresses emergency circumstances under the Anti-Deficiency Act (and thus federal furlough rules),” Hatchett said in an email. “NTSB’s participation in this investigation is focused on addressing any potential aviation safety concerns that could immediately threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property.”
Critics of the ongoing shutdown point out the important investigative work that the NTSB does and said their absence is more than troubling.
“These are key things the NTSB is involved in, and people take it for granted,” DeFazio said. “It’s kind of like your guardian angel. You don’t know they’re there keeping you safe.”
Many worry of its impact on the workforce in the long term, as experts say that this is one of many agencies that struggles to retain employees. This furlough isn’t helping them to reduce turnover.
It hurts employees to have to stay home, said Mayer, who served as managing director of the NTSB during the 2013 shutdown. They’re being forced to abandon their “life’s work” and watch accidents happen without necessary follow up.
“It’s beyond frustrating to them that they are sitting at home unable to do the work they signed up for,” Mayer said. “It’s nothing more than demoralizing seeing accidents occur and having expertise to investigate and being unable to do so.”