Measures to Improve Child Occupant Protection
by Jim Hall, Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
before the Child Occupant Protection II Conference
November 12, 1997
Good Morning and thank you, Dick, for that kind introduction.
It is indeed my pleasure to be here this morning to discuss what the National Transportation Safety Board believes can be done to improve child occupant protection. I would like to recognize one of my colleagues, George Black, who is in the audience today. Many of you know George from his days in the Gwinnett County, Georgia Department of Transportation. I know George as a dedicated Safety Board Member who is very concerned about improving child occupant protection and has been very supportive of the Board’s efforts in this area.
In the past two years, the Safety Board has issued over 60 recommendations to improve automobile occupant protection. The majority of these recommendations would directly affect the safety of the millions of children who are transported every day in their parent’s, caregiver’s or friend’s cars.
While it is an honor for me to be invited to speak before such an impressive array of distinguished researchers and safety advocates, it is also a great opportunity for me to be able to discuss what I consider long overdue improvements to child occupant protection with the people who have worked so hard to advance the field.
It is time that as a society "We put children first in the design of automobiles." That was the conclusion of three witnesses at a public forum that the National Transportation Safety Board held earlier this year to discuss air bags and child passenger safety. Each of the three witnesses had come to testify about how their lives had been affected by a crash in which an air bag deployed. All of them had young children.
One witness lost a 5-year old child in the crash as a result of contact by the child with the air bag, even though the child was wearing a lap and shoulder belt. Another witness was seriously injured when the driver-side air bag deployed, even though she was wearing her lap and shoulder belt. The third witness was saved by his air bag in a very severe crash. Although the circumstances of their crashes varied, in each case the thought these parents wanted to leave with the audience at the Board’s public forum was "put children first in the design of automobiles."
They are right. There is a window of national attention on this issue that we need to use to our advantage. The dangers that air bags pose to children have been well publicized in the media and have made many people more aware of the importance of proper restraint use for children. Through our accident investigations spanning many years the Safety Board has issued a long list of recommendations that we think can save many young lives and reduce countless injuries to children. I would like to briefly share those ideas with you this morning.
Let me quickly summarize what activities the Board has been involved in over the past two years related to child passenger protection. In November 1995, the Board after extensive investigations issued 17 urgent safety recommendations asking government and industry, health and safety groups to immediately warn parents of the dangers that air bags pose to children. Thus began the national debate on the consequences to children of air bag deployments.
I am pleased to say that as a result of our recommendations, all of the automobile manufacturers sent letters and labels to owners of vehicles equipped with air bags warning them that air bags posed a danger to children. In addition, based on the Safety Board’s recommendation for a highly visible, nationwide multi-media education campaign, the Air Bag Safety Campaign was founded. This group has done an admirable job getting information to the public and organizing support for both adult and child restraint use programs among corporate America.
One year ago, the Board completed a study that examined the performance and use of child restraints, seatbelts, and air bags for children in passenger vehicles. There were some appalling findings in the Board’s report. We found that more than two-thirds of the children in the sample were not in the appropriate restraint for their age, height, and weight; over half of the children who used child restraint systems were improperly restrained; and about one-quarter of the children who used seatbelts were improperly restrained.
Finally, in March of this year we conducted a four day public forum on air bags and child passenger safety. What have we concluded as a result of these efforts?
First and foremost, the Safety Board believes that many of the problems related to child passenger safety, including the dangers that air bags pose to children, can be resolved by ensuring that children ride in the back seats of vehicles when a back seat position is available. It doesn’t cost anything to implement this recommendation and it is common sense. Head on collisions are the most serious type of crash. A child seated in the back seat, especially in the center of the back seat, is going to be further from the point of impact and from the crush of the vehicle.
Secondly, children of all ages need to be properly restrained. Children between about 4 and 8 years old should be restrained in booster seats and exemptions that permit these young children to substitute seatbelts in place of child restraint systems should be repealed. Lap/shoulder belts were not designed to protect children and as a result do not fit children properly. Children 8 years or older should be required by law to use seatbelts in all vehicle seating positions.
Some will argue that the current design of the back seat does not accommodate children. The Board recognized that this was a concern with some vehicles and made recommendations to make the back seat of the vehicle more child-friendly.
We would like to see all automobile manufacturers offer integrated restraints in their passenger vehicles. They provide 4 safety benefits. They:
• eliminate the need for supplemental hardware,
• eliminate restraint system availability problems,
• encourage use of the back seat where the integrated restraint is installed, and
• provide restraint systems specifically designed for children.
We want to see lap/shoulder belts provided as standard equipment in the center back seat position. Children seated in the center rear seat should be afforded the same level of protection as other occupants of the rear seat, who have been afforded lap/shoulder belts for almost 8 years. Further, belt-positioning booster seats, which are designed to be used with lap/shoulder belts, are an important, easy-to-use, and markedly underutilized safety device for children. A center rear lap/shoulder belt provides an additional seating position for a belt-positioning booster seat.
We think that adjustable upper anchorages should be provided in the outboard rear seating positions to allow children who have outgrown booster seats and are tall enough to use the shoulder belt a way to adjust the height of the shoulder belt anchor upward or downward to better position the belt on their shoulder. If the shoulder belt fits comfortably, the child is more likely to wear it properly and to obtain the full benefit of the upper torso protection.
There must also be improvements to the design and installation of child restraint systems. As I mentioned earlier, over half of the children who used child restraint systems in our study were improperly restrained. Even when the parents reported to our investigator that they had read the manufacturer’s instructions, over half still made mistakes restraining their child. These are mistakes made by parents who cared enough to obtain a child restraint and to read the instructions.
The responsibility for ensuring that child restraint systems are properly used should not rest entirely with the parents and caregivers, particularly on a government required safety device. A child restraint system should be easy to use with simple and straightforward instructions. The Safety Board would like to see the child restraint manufacturers, in conjunction with NHTSA, evaluate the design of child restraint systems, with the goal of simplifying placement of a child in a restraint system. Further, the manufacturers need to simplify the written and visual instructions provided to consumers regarding the installation of child restraint devices.
The Safety Board also believes that there is a need for more uniformity in the installation of child restraint systems than currently exists and we have supported efforts to provide for the secure and uniform installation of child restraint systems.
Let me conclude with some thoughts about why it is so important that we make every effort possible to get children into the back seat and everyone in the car buckled up. There are currently about 70 million cars on the road today with first generation air bags. It is now acknowledged that many of these air bags are more aggressive than needed. These cars belong to people in the upper socioeconomic brackets or to people who have been made aware of the dangers that air bags pose to children. In other words, for these 70 million vehicles, it is the best of times.
Over the next 15 years, these cars will likely be passed on to less sophisticated, higher risk families, and then on to teenagers. We know that voluntary restraint use decreases as you pass through these population groups and that teenagers are the least likely to buckle up. Unless we act now to make it a habit that children ride in the back seat and that everyone in the car buckles up, it is very likely that children will continue to die in crashes that they could have survived.
I know that you will do all you can to see that this doesn’t happen. I pledge to you the Safety Board’s support and I look forward to working with you to save children’s lives.
Finally, to each of you present today, let me close with a personal message. I believe that none of us involved in this field of transportation safety – and I include those who design and manufacture the cars, those responsible for their sale and delivery, as well as those who work in safety enforcement and injury mitigation – none of us should rest until all of us "Put children first."
It is the right thing for us to do. It is what we preach in our houses of worship, in our halls of government and in our family homes. I appeal for your personal leadership to make it a reality for the children of our nation.
God Speed in your important work.