Thursday, October 3, 2013

Government shutdown means no NTSB investigators for deadly bus crash

You’ve probably heard about or seen some of the details from Wednesday’s deadly crash involving a church bus, an SUV and a tractor-trailer on Interstate 40 near Dandridge, Tenn., 30 miles east of Knoxville near the North Carolina border. The crash has killed at least eight people and injured 14. Two of the injured remain in critical condition.

Normally, when an accident of this magnitude occurs, a team from the National Transportation Safety Board is dispatched to investigate the cause of the accident and to make safety recommendations to ensure such tragedies are avoided in the future.

Although the agency has no authority to regulate, fund or be directly involved in the operation of any mode of transportation, it is set up by design to provide independent oversight and an objective viewpoint of the transportation industry.

But because Congress remains gridlocked in Day Three of a government shutdown that has furloughed some 800,000 government workers, and left many “essential” government employees working without pay, there are no investigators to send to Tennessee.

“In this particular case I think it’s highly likely that we would have responded to it, but again, with our investigators furloughed, it’s impossible to do that,” Sharon Bryson, deputy director of communications for the NTSB, said in a news story posted on an NBC News website.

“All of our highway investigators are furloughed,” Bryson is quoted as saying in the same article.

Bryson actually responded via email to my request for comment. She said the NTSB media team is currently on furlough due to the funding lapse and would not be able to provide comment to the media.

So there’s that.

Here’s what we know so far. The left front tire of the bus blew out, causing it to veer across the eastbound lanes of I-40 and into the westbound lanes. The bus struck an SUV before colliding with an oncoming semi, which burst into flames on impact. Six people on the bus were killed, as was one of the three people in the SUV, and the tractor-trailer driver.

Authorities are still trying to determine the identities of the victims, some of whom will have to be identified by dental records.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol is handling the accident investigation. A spokesman for the state patrol declined to comment about how the lack of NTSB involvement would affect their investigation.

“Our search team is very good at what they do. They investigate every accident on our Tennessee highways,” spokesman Kevin Crawford said in a phone interview with me on Thursday. “Any comment about that would have to be directed to the NTSB.”

To be clear, I am in no way saying, suggesting or otherwise insinuating that the Tennessee Highway Patrol is not up to the difficult task of finding out just what exactly happened here. What I am concerned about, and what should frankly concern us all, are the continued ripples from this shutdown. Ripples that are interfering with the function and operation of programs and agencies that are in place to help ensure our safety.

The most important part of the NTSB’s safety board’s mandate is the safety recommendations it issues, many of which can be implemented well before the formal investigation is concluded. On the NTSB’s own website, it cites the investigation into the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, when the board issued an urgent safety recommendation aimed at eliminating explosive fuel and air vapors in airliner fuel tanks. That recommendation and at least 10 others – three in 1996, one in 1997, and six in 1998 – came out before the formal investigation concluded in 2000.

The state patrol can certainly get to the bottom of the investigation, but it does not have the same ability that the NTSB does, to act quickly in making safety recommendations that can and do save lives on a national level.