NAPT News & Views

Barry McCahill
Posted on January 15, 2010

NHTSA and NTSB — what’s the difference?

Washington, D.C., is a cornucopia of federal departments, agencies, boards, commissions and other entities. How many are there? It’s hard to get a firm count. Let’s just say “lots” (some would say “too many”).

Why so many? Because the domestic and international worlds are dauntingly complex, and because Congress, the White House, states and business lobbies are political institutions constantly trying to “do something” about problems real and imagined. Once created, every government institution considers its existence and funding an unspoken priority and builds a political constituency that will fight for it to the death. Few federal agencies ever sunset, and more are created all the time.

Many have tongue-twister names, such as the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences (say that five times fast) under the aegis of the Department of Energy.

The two most impacting the pupil transportation industry have the same mission — safety — but different responsibilities and powers. The names are similar enough that they’re often confused: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

NHTSA is an agency of the Department of Transportation established in 1966 when auto safety jumped onto the national stage after Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed led to federal legislation creating the agency and charging it with promoting motor vehicle and highway safety. Later legislation added responsibility for setting fuel economy standards for passenger cars and light trucks.

A politically appointed administrator and deputy administrator head NHTSA (the deputy does not need to be confirmed by the Senate). They have no set terms, and they report to the secretary of transportation.

NHTSA has two sides to its house. What’s commonly referred to as the motor vehicle safety program regulates the motor vehicle industry (including school buses) by setting safety performance standards and other requirements, and investigating suspected problems to determine if a safety defect exists. If so, it has the authority to order a recall, although most recalls are conducted voluntarily by manufacturers.

NHTSA also researches promising new automotive technologies and conducts crash tests to make sure new vehicles meet federal requirements, or to demonstrate the benefit of proposed new requirements. New vehicles also are crash-tested and given “star” performance ratings to give consumers comparative safety information when shopping.

The other side of NHTSA is the highway safety program. It provides grants to states to promote highway safety efforts, such as seat belts, curbing impaired driving, pupil transportation and more. It also conducts research into various behaviors that affect highway safety.

Efforts to promote pupil transportation involve making buses safer through Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and other requirements, and encouraging states to promote school bus safety awareness. Over the past two decades, however, the agency has been almost singularly focused on safety belts and impaired driving, with most emphasis on local police enforcement.

Bottom line: NHTSA has statutory authority to require safety improvements and remedy defects. While there is a program continuity that transcends political changes, its actions typically also are influenced by the political inclinations of the administration in the White House and/or Congressional oversight.

NTSB is an independent federal agency established in 1967 to investigate every aviation accident in the U.S., and significant accidents in other modes of transportation: railroad, highway, marine and pipeline.
It has five board members who serve five-year terms. They are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

While best known for its high-profile investigations of plane crashes since these catastrophic events garner so much national media attention, NTSB actually is very busy investigating other serious crashes that may not be in the limelight.

Board investigators determine probable cause of accidents and lessons learned, and they make recommendations to federal transportation regulators and industries aimed at preventing future accidents.
NTSB “Go Teams” are on duty 24/7 and are on site within hours of a major transportation accident.

Bottom line: NTSB tends to be less “political.” It can only recommend, not mandate or regulate improvements. For example, aircraft recommendations are passed along to the Federal Aviation Administration for consideration, and school bus or motorcoach incidents are sent to NHTSA for action.

But this is not to say that the board has no power. Quite the contrary: Its investigatory expertise and bully pulpit are very well respected. Its “Most Wanted List” of actions gets considerable media attention, and members of Congress often back up the NTSB in seeing that recommendations are considered thoroughly and, when appropriate, acted upon.

Next month, we’ll discuss items of interest pending at both agencies.

Barry McCahill is president of McCahill Communications and a former acting director of NHTSA’s Office of Public & Consumer Affairs.

Related Topics: NHTSA, NTSB

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