Remarks of Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before the Green Hills Rotary Club of Nashville, Tennessee
and the Brainerd Kiwanis Club of Chattanooga, Tennessee
May 15, 1998
Good morning. It is a pleasure to be back home in Tennessee with you today so that I can talk to you about an issue of great importance to the National Transportation Safety Board, and one that I’m sure is of great importance to you – the safety of our children on the highways.
I speak to you as the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. I speak to you as a parent. And I speak to you as one of 180 million licensed drivers who depend on and enjoy America’s highways.
Earlier this week, I participated in an event sponsored by AAA in Washington that helped publicize one of the National Transportation Safety Board’s major priorities – saving the lives of our nation’s young people. Two of the most effective ways of doing that are by universal passage of graduated licensing laws and by taking steps to protect the smallest children in automobiles, both by redesigning the vehicles and by changing habits about where children sit.
The first thing I want to talk about today is graduated licensing. We all had to learn how to drive sometime. When I first got behind the wheel of my father’s ’57 Ford almost 40 years ago on the roadways around Knoxville, Tennessee, the environment I had to deal with was much different from what your kids confront today.
• In those days, we only had about 68 million vehicles on U.S. roads; that number has now tripled to about 210 million.
• In those days, there were some 6,000 to 8,000 miles of Interstate highway; that compares with 42,000 miles today.
• In those days, trucks were restricted to 45 feet in length; now it is not uncommon to see trucks over 100 feet long, with some having not one but two or three trailers.
• We had 618,000 tractor-trailer trucks in the country then; now we have twice as many, 1.3 million.
• Back then, if anyone had said "Road Rage" to me, I would have thought they were talking about a brand of chewing tobacco.
Today’s highways have changed, and laws that prepare our young people must change also.
More than 9,000 highway fatalities a year involve a teenaged driver. In fact, motor vehicle crashes are the leading causes of death for teenagers. Youths are still highly over-represented in highway fatalities; they comprise 7 percent of licensed drivers but 14 percent of highway fatalities. Although they do 20 percent of their driving at night, more than 50 percent of their fatalities occur during that time. There is a solution.
Reducing youth highway crashes is one of the 10 items on the Board’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. We are calling on States to pass graduated licensing legislation with a nighttime driving restriction. Success in this area includes not only getting better laws on the books, but also on enforcing those laws.
We are approaching high school graduation season. No year passes without tragedies involving young lives being ended in unnecessary and preventable car crashes. In too many of these crashes, the drivers and passengers are not belted; the cars are loaded with the driver’s peers; inattention is the rule; excessive speed or alcohol may be involved; and the crashes occur at night, at a time when the risks are heightened.
The combination of inexperience and immaturity can be deadly. Yet these crashes are preventable. We have to muster the political will to enact the legislative measures that will reduce these crashes. Graduated licensing laws – properly enforced – are the answer.
We need to introduce the driving privilege gradually for beginning drivers. We need to provide for enhanced driver practice under the safest possible real-world conditions. We need to more rapidly identify young problem drivers before bad habits and behaviors become ingrained. Nighttime driving restrictions are an essential part of any graduated licensing program. This is just common sense and should be done.
We already have proof that such measures are effective. Nighttime driving restrictions in several States have resulted in dramatic reductions in crashes among 16-year-old drivers: 69 percent in Pennsylvania, 62 percent in New York and 40 percent in Maryland.
We don’t proceed from walking to riding a bicycle in a single step. We need training wheels to make the learning process safer. Graduated licensing acts as training wheels for young drivers. Think about it. Our current license programs don’t teach our young to drive, they teach them to pass a test.
I hope you will join me in doing whatever we can to pass these youth driving initiatives, to give our children time to become responsible and skilled motor vehicle operators, and, most important, to save 9,000 lives every year, both teenaged and older.
The second issue I wish to discuss with you is the need to better protect children in cars. We must make our automobiles a more friendly environment for children.
Let me give you some facts. In the most serious accidents, those in which there was one or more fatality, 40 percent of children under age 5 - let me repeat - 40 percent of children under 5 years old who were involved in serious crashes were unrestrained. The restraint use for older children is even worse. Almost half of all the children 5 to 9 years old and almost two-thirds of children 10 to 14 were unrestrained. We should be concerned about the lives and safety of our children; certainly more concerned than these statistics reflect.
On Monday, I will be in Washington to help kick off a week long campaign called Operation ABC; America Buckles up Children, to make sure that children across the nation are in car seats and seatbelts. Over 4,000 police departments, including many in Tennessee, have agreed to stop every car that has an unbuckled child and make sure that that child is in a car seat or seatbelt. Tennessee has always been recognized as a leader in child passenger safety. There should be no tolerance in Tennessee for unbuckled children.
The need for strong laws protecting all children riding in motor vehicles has been brought to the forefront in recent years by public reports of children being killed by air bag deployments in relatively minor collisions. The fact is, our society has failed our children on this score, because we have failed to put our children first in the design of our motor vehicles; in fact, we seem to have put them last.
Air bags are designed for adults and so are seatbelts. So it’s not surprising that when you try to put a small child in a seatbelt, that the lap belt doesn’t fit tightly, or that the shoulder belt rubs against the neck. And it’s not surprising that seatbelts don’t always work easily with car seats; seatbelts weren’t designed with car seats in mind.
I recognize the difficulty that parents face each time they place their child in a child restraint system. Parents assume that they can just put the child restraint in the car and buckle the seat belt and the child will be protected. They also assume that they can place the child in the restraint system, fasten it, and the child will be safe. These are reasonable assumptions. Unfortunately, it is not that simple.
Automobile manufacturers in this country have not paid adequate attention to the needs of children. My agency is working to change that by recommending that the manufacturers provide integrated restraint systems that are designed specifically for children; offering adjustable shoulder belt anchorages to accommodate children who have outgrown their booster seats, but are not yet tall enough to fit into the adult shoulder belt; and installation of center rear lap/shoulder belts. We tell parents that the center of the back seat is the safest place for children, yet the automakers provide only a lap belt for the child to use. We have asked the auto manufacturers to put shoulder belts in the center back seat.
None of these actions are complicated. Australia has approached this issue simply, to great result. First of all, Australian children routinely sit in the safer back seat. This is because Australia requires use of a tether strap on all their car seats. The tether strap, along with the car seat belt, holds the car seat firmly in place. The tether anchors are permanently installed on the back shelf of the Australian car and thus encourage children to sit in the back where the tether anchorages are.
In the late 1970’s American car seats had tethers but parents had to drill and attach the tether anchor themselves so most people did not fasten them. Eventually our car seats were redesigned without the tethers. In Australia, however, they established fitting stations where a parent can drive in to have their tether attached and have someone check to make sure that they have properly secured their car seat in the car.
Also, in Australia, for over 20 years they have had booster seats that can be used with the lap and shoulder belt for children 4 to 8 years old. This type of booster seat only became available in our country about 5 years ago following a Safety Board recommendation.
The importance of this is emphasized by the fact that child safety seats reduce the risk of fatal injury by 69 percent for infants and almost 50 percent for toddlers.
I find it very frustrating that American parents who are trying to do the right thing for their children have such a hard time properly buckling them into cars when other countries have found solutions. Protecting our children is not something where America should be second best.
Traffic crashes cost each and every Tennesseean $580 in 1994. That's $580 from the youngest to the oldest, or $2,300 for a family of four. That's nearly $3.1 billion each and every year in Tennessee. If you want to reduce health, welfare, and other costs, then we need to look at reducing fatalities and serious injuries from automobile crashes. The best way to do that is to talk to your State legislators about passing laws that strengthen the existing child restraint and seatbelt laws and to require graduated licensing for our teens.
Before I close, I’d like to briefly mention the big story in transportation this past week. You’ve all heard about the FAA’s action to ground some of the older Boeing 737s until certain wiring could be inspected and, if necessary, replaced. I commended the FAA for its swift action once it learned about the problem. As you may know, the Safety Board issued recommendations last month urging inspections of several aircraft types, including the 737, where wiring bundles might permit surges of higher voltage electricity into low-voltage wiring that passes through fuel tanks.
Since the TWA flight 800 tragedy, government regulators and the industry have become more interested in the potential for fuel tank explosions, and the recent FAA action on the 737s is just one manifestation of the benefits the American people derive from the independent investigations of the NTSB.
Thank you for inviting me here today. Thomas Jefferson said, "The care of human life and happiness is the first and only legitimate object of good government." I believe the National Transportation Safety Board does that every day.
As you many know, transportation is one of the largest and most dynamic segments of our economy, and the Safety Board, among the smallest of federal agencies, has the large responsibility of examining the performance of multi-billion dollar companies and government regulatory agencies having tens of thousands of employees.
I am persuaded that the money spent on the Safety Board – about $50 million a year – is among the most cost effective of all taxpayer expenditures. It costs each citizen about 18 cents a year to fund my agency, less than to mail a postcard.
On call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, Safety Board investigators travel throughout the country and to every corner of the world to investigate significant accidents, developing a factual record that often leads to safety recommendations aimed at ensuring that such accidents never happen again. More than 80 percent of those recommendations have been adopted over the Board’s 31-year history, improving safety in every mode of transportation: aviation, rail, highway, marine and pipeline.
You are my boss – the American taxpayer. Let's continue to work together to save lives now and for years to come.