NTSB Marks 50 Years of Saving Lives


In the five decades since the NTSB was created, it has investigated thousands of accidents and made more than 14,500 recommendations to improve transportation safety.

In a news release, the NTSB says that more than 80 percent of these accident-prevention recommendations have been acted upon favorably, saving countless lives.

The National Transportation Board was created April, 1, 1967, as part of the new Department of Transportation. In asking Congress to create a separate accident investigations agency, President Lyndon B. Johnson said the NTSB’s sole function “will be the safety of our travelers.” Its initial staff of 185 was taken from the Civil Aeronautics Board’s Bureau of Safety, which had existed since 1940. In 1974, Congress passed the Independent Safety Board Act and on April 1, 1975, the NTSB became an independent federal agency, separating it from the Department of Transportation.

The NTSB is charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant accidents in other modes of transportation—railroad, highway, marine, and pipeline. The NTSB determines the probable cause of the accidents and issues safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents.

Now with a staff of 430, the National Transportation Safety Board investigates, on average, 1,600 aviation accidents and incidents, 22 highway crashes, nine rail accidents, three pipeline or hazardous materials accidents, and 30 maritime accidents each year, and issues more than 280 safety recommendations.

Seat belts now save about 13,000 lives a year. Likewise, new cars must be equipped with airbags, as well as lap-and-shoulder belts in both the front and back seats, and every state has laws governing mandatory usage of car seats for children.

Fifty years ago, commercial passenger airliner crashes related to encounters with thunderstorms were not uncommon, in fact from 1973 to 1985 seven thunderstorm-related crashes killed 514 people. The NTSB’s investigations identified the need for better thunderstorm detection and led to the agency issuing related safety recommendations. These resulted in the development and use of better storm detection, warning and avoidance technologies. As a result of these and other safety advancements, there has not been a  loss of life associated with a thunderstorm-related commercial passenger airline crash since 1999.

Fifty years ago, pressurized rail tank cars exploded when involved in accidents. One explosion, in Waverly, Tennessee, killed 16 and injured 43 in 1978. Following that tragedy, the NTSB recommended improvements, and, just two weeks after the NTSB’s finding that a high-carbon wheel caused the derailment, the Federal Railroad Administration acted to ban all such wheels by the end of the year.

As much as the NTSB has done, there is more work ahead in the agency’s next 50 years. The challenges of aging infrastructure, high-speed rail, drones, commercial space travel and increased automation in transportation are emerging. The transportation industry is focused on a future with zero accidents as advances in automation present new opportunities to save lives. As it has for 50 years, and as it does today, the NTSB will continue to investigate accidents and make recommendations that will help future generations enjoy an era free from transportation accidents.

As it has for 50 years, and as it does today, the NTSB will continue to investigate accidents and make recommendations that will help future generations enjoy an era free from transportation accidents.