How does the National Transportation Safety Board decide which crashes to investigate?  -  Photo: NTSB

How does the National Transportation Safety Board decide which crashes to investigate?

Photo: NTSB

Ever wonder exactly what happens when a highway accident is investigated, especially when the crash is so severe that the National Transportation Safety Board gets called in? To find out, HDT Talks Trucking called up Rob Molloy, director of the Office of Highway Safety at NTSB.

Right off the bat, Molloy said the nation’s premier transportation crash investigation unit doesn’t examine a large number of commercial truck and bus crashes, because its resources are limited. Crashes it chooses to investigate are usually so big that there's national interest in it and there's a safety issue to investigate, he told HDT Talks Trucking.


Listen to Jim Park's interview with the NTSB's Rob Malloy in this episode of HDT Talks Trucking

“By allowing us to look, we can help dispel myths of what might have happened, or find safety issues we can prevent from happening in the future,” he said. “You know, we certainly have a few things on our most wanted list of safety improvements we'd like to see. And sometimes we see a crash that we think would highlight the benefits of that safety improvement, and how it can be effective in preventing future crashes.”

That’s one set of criteria NTSB uses to select which crashes to investigate. It could also be “something we haven't looked at for a while,” said Molloy.

“Maybe [the crash] is in a work zone area,” he continued. “[If] we haven't done a work zone crash for a while, we'll pick that up. So, it's really [a case of] have we a real national interest and concern about this as a safety issue? Is it a recurring issue that we haven't addressed in a long while? Is it something [to which] we really would have added input?”

Molloy also discussed how “a lot of people sometimes think about human error, you know, the driver broke the law or did something illegal that caused the crash. Or it was just the driver’s fault completely. And that's where we go beyond just trying to say there was someone at fault... [to] really look at all the factors that may have affected the driver.

For instance, “that's why we'll look at the roadway design and the signage they had to deal with,” he added, also noting NTSB will take into account such variables as “whether the weather was a factor, or even the design of the vehicle they were driving.”

With that open-minded approach to investigating accidents in mind, HDT Talks Trucking host Jim Park queried Molloy on two specific crashes studied by NTSB to glean insights for improving highway safety for both truckers and motorists:

  • A severe collision that took place in Miami, Oklahoma, in which a truck rear-ended a line of stopped cars on an open highway, causing a large number of fatalities.
  • A whisper of a fender-bender in Las Vegas between a tractor-trailer and an autonomous shuttle bus that Park contended “shouldn't have even made the radar screen for being such a minor, minor incident,” leaving him to wonder why NTSB even decided to focus on it.

Listen to this HDT Talks Trucking podcast episode and others on your favorite podcast platform or at

About the author
David Cullen

David Cullen

[Former] Business/Washington Contributing Editor

David Cullen comments on the positive and negative factors impacting trucking – from the latest government regulations and policy initiatives coming out of Washington DC to the array of business and societal pressures that also determine what truck-fleet managers must do to ensure their operations keep on driving ahead.

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