First of all, let me tell you that you might have gotten the wrong impression from the news media recently. Let me assure you that you are all essential.
And second, just because you're meeting in Washington does not mean that you can leave here without reaching an agreement.
I am very pleased to be here today to participate in this important conference. I want to commend Rick Martinez and Jerry Scannell for putting this conference together. I know that they, along with Jim Hedlund and Jim Nichols from NHTSA and Jane Roemer from the National Safety Council and their staffs, and all of the members of the conference planning committee put in a lot of time and effort over the holiday period setting up this important meeting.
There have been news accounts in recent months about small children dying or being seriously injured because of airbag deployments. That is the reason we are here today. However, it is imperative that the public not read the wrong lessons into these tragedies. Airbags are a proven lifesaver when used properly in conjunction with seatbelts. In fact, airbags are reported to have saved about 900 lives and prevented tens of thousands of moderate-to-critical injuries. Our task here is to develop a means to educate the public on proper restraint use and make sure we dispell any misconceptions about their value.
And we need to make sure that people know airbags are not nearly as effective if the occupant is not first buckled up. We also need to convince people that their children are safer in the back seat, and that in no circumstances should they place a rear-facing child safety seat in a front passenger seat equipped with an airbag.
This job can be done and this group is well prepared to succeed. Who would have thought, a decade ago, that seatbelt use would be the norm in this country? That over two-thirds of all Americans would routinely buckle up? That public opinion would overwhelmingly support mandatory seatbelt use laws?
Many of you here are responsible for that remarkable achievement.
The National Transportation Safety Board is ready to do its part in this effort to educate the public. On November 2, 1995, after the Safety Board had investigated 8 accidents in which small children were needlessly killed or seriously injured by airbags, we issued a number of urgent safety recommendations calling for the federal government, auto and child safety seat manufacturers, medical and advertising groups, to take immediate action to advise the public about the dangers of placing a rear-facing child safety seat or an unrestrained or improperly restrained small child in the front seat of a vehicle equipped with passenger-side airbags.
The goals of this conference - to develop an action plan for informing the public about the potential dangers of airbags to unrestrained or improperly restrained occupants and for immediately increasing the proper use of safety restraints by children and adults - are right in line with the Board's recommendations.
The goal is also in line with another recommendation that the Safety Board issued last June. We want the States to enact legislation that provides for primary enforcement of mandatory safety belt use laws. Primary enforcement has been shown to be an effective way to increase the proper use of safety restraints by children and adults. Safety belt use is 10 to 13 percent higher in primary law States compared with secondary law States. I hope that you will also be focusing on primary laws over the next two days.
This Conference is titled "A Call to Action." This is not the first time that many of you in this room have been asked to take action to promote passenger safety. You have answered the call before. Because of the hard work already done by many of you here today, laws in every State require the use of a child safety seat for small children and laws in 49 States require safety belt use for adults. I know that you will answer the call again and with as much success as in the past.
In order to succeed, however, you need to develop an action plan that is realistic and that each and every one of you is committed to. Developing this action plan will require a lot of hard work on your part over the next two days. You need to be certain that the public understands the importance of putting children in the rear seat and properly restraining them. That message must be effectively and continuously communicated!
Enacting the plan and spreading the word will require your long-term personal commitment and the long-term commitment of the organizations you represent. Hard work, however, has its rewards.
As you begin this project you know that, if you succeed, you will save lives -- lives, in many cases, of innocent infants.
The National Transportation Safety Board wants to be an active partner with you in this endeavor. My fellow Board Members and I are available to testify before State legislatures or talk with the media about this issue. Please do not hesitate to contact me or the Board's Government Affairs office, if you think that the presence of the Safety Board can further your cause.
You have your work cut out for you, but I know that you will rise to the occasion as you have in the past. Congratulations, in advance, for the lives that you will save as a result of your participation here today.