NTSB Finally Takes an Interest in Cycling Safety — Still Misses the Point

The National Transportation Safety Board is best known for investigating train crashes and plane crashes to figure out what went wrong.

Photo: Ghostbikes.org
Photo: Ghostbikes.org

It’s an approach designed to prevent catastrophic incidents that claim several lives at once. But the much bigger risk in America’s transportation system is more mundane — the daily stream of traffic crashes that kill one or two people at a time, fading into the background of the news cycle while adding up to tens of thousands of lives lost each year.

Network blog Systemic Failure relays the news that NTSB is doing something unusual: It is investigating a fatal crash where the victims were cycling. But again the agency is focused on a single incident with a high death toll — the June collision that killed five cyclists in Kalamazoo, Michigan. According to Mlive.com:

NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said the team will look at all aspects of the incident, including how it happened and how the truck hit the bicyclists. He said the team will reconstruct the crash and find out if there are any safety issues that could be improved, from the vehicles involved to the road.

Weiss said the NTSB is investigating because the agency has taken an interest in the case, and not at the request of local authorities.

“This is such a singular event that we wanted to look at the issues behind it,” said Weiss,

Some good might come out of this investigation, but how representative is this crash of the 700+ cyclist deaths in the U.S. each year? If the NTSB wants to make a difference for bicycling safety, it should examine the systemic causes of cycling fatalities.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Pedestrian Observations argues that everything else being equal, low-floor trams will be more reliable than low-floor buses. Transport Providence looks at a new app that lets users rent out their driveway for parking for $1 per hour. And the Political Environment reports that Wisconsin is continuing its ill-advised road spending spree with another questionable highway expansion.

  • Komanoff

    This post strikes the right note, in my book. Well done.

    Almost 20 years ago I wrote to the NTSB requesting they begin analyzing fatal cycling traffic crashes, beginning with two types of incidents: “dooring” and heavy trucks. Here’s my letter: file:///C:/Users/Komanoff/Dropbox/RoW/Website/RoW2014-02-08.tar/cars-suck/littera-scripta/ntsb.html. It took great effort over many months to coax a reply, which said, essentially, don’t bother us.

  • J

    Indeed. Why isn’t the NTSB investigating the systemic problem that leads to hundreds of deaths each year? Surely, that falls under the purview of Transportation Safety.

  • That path to the file won’t work…

  • Komanoff

    You’re right. Please try this, I just checked it: http://www.cars-suck.org/littera-scripta/ntsb.html. My apologies.

  • How many bicycle and pedestrian crashes have we seen where there are multiple deaths in one incident? What made this crash so horrendous is that five cyclists were killed and four were injured in essentially one instance.
    In the recent ballooning crash, 16 died.

    In the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia in May 2015, eight died.

    NTSB originated in 1926 for the primary purpose of investigating aviation crashes.

  • J

    Wait, so you’re saying that because the 720 cyclists and 4,884 pedestrians who died in 2014 didn’t die at the same time, their deaths don’t deserve investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board? Seriously??? Man that’s callous and lazy.

    By comparison 761 people died in commercial aviation crashes….worldwide. Seems like the problem isn’t planes anymore. But yeah, let’s continue ignoring the systematic destruction of lives because they don’t make international headlines… said the callous lazy bureaucrat.

  • Yes, to some extent that’s what I’m saying. You question why 720 cyclists and 4,884 pedestrians in 2014 “don’t’ deserve investigation by NTSB.”

    What about about almost 10,000 people that year dying due to drunk driving? Do they also not deserve NTSB investigation?

    Your question goes to the difference between the government’s two premier transportation safety agencies: NTSB and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA.

    “NHTSA was established by the Highway Safety Act of 1970 and is dedicated to achieving the highest standards of excellence in motor vehicle and highway safety. It works daily to help prevent crashes and their attendant costs, both human and financial.”

    NTSB, on the other hand, “is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident the United States and significant accidents in other modes of transportation – railroad, highway, marine and pipeline….”

  • J

    Only investigating the “human and financial” causes of crashes means that the systemic car-centric, deadly-by-design standards go uninvestigated and unchanged. Only investigating large-scale catastrophes means that only the catastrophes get addressed. If a leader in either agency wanted to actually address street safety, it seems that they could try, but “not my job” is always the easier, safer answer, and people will continue to die in predictably large numbers.