NTSB: First Rule of Accident Club

Photograph by Christopher Gregory/Getty Images

Emergency crews help injured passengers after Metro-North train derailed near the Spuyten Duyvil station on Dec. 1, 2013 in the Bronx borough of New York City.

The National Transportation Safety Board isn’t exactly one of Washington’s most powerful agencies.

That becomes clear in the number of its recommendations that regulators ignore.

One thing it can control is how its investigations are conducted.

First rule of the Accident Club: No one talks about our work except us. Or else.

The Association of Commuter Rail Employees union’s general chairman held a press conference yesterday about the Metro-North fatal train accident in New York on Sunday. Hours later the NTSB removed the union from involvement in the probe, proving its pique by announcing the move in a press release at 10:38 p.m.

The decision cuts the union out of cooperative efforts and communications to find out what happened.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association was similarly cut off, for the same reason, in 2009 from a probe into a midair collision over the Hudson River.

This year, Boeing Co. was rebuked by the agency for executives’ comments about efforts to lift the grounding of the 787 Dreamliner. In December 2010, it tossed American Airlines out of an investigation into a runway accident after the company downloaded the contents of a flight data recorder before turning the device over to the agency.

Even though outside parties have no official role in deciding the outcome of an investigation, unions and manufacturers treasure being part of them. It allows them to do behind-the-scenes lobbying on the NTSB’s conclusions of probable cause that may sway litigation and public perception.

“Our rules exist to avoid the prospect of any party to an NTSB investigation offering its slant on the circumstances of the accident,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in a statement yesterday.

For his part, the rail-union’s leader wasn’t apologizing.

“Sometimes you walk a fine line trying to represent your people and trying to be part of a committee investigating,” Anthony Bottalico said. “Sometimes the NTSB has to do what it has to, and I respect that.”

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