Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the absence of your president emeritus, John Lynker, who I understand is recovering from a very serious heart problem. I know that you all join me in wishing him a speedy recovery.
I also want to introduce the Safety Board staff who are here with me today: Barry Sweedler and Elaine Weinstein of our Office of Safety Recommendations and Accomplishments, Vern Roberts from our Office of Highway Safety, Phil Frame, from our Office of Public Affairs and a former WAPA first vice president; and Jamie Pericola, from my staff.
As the Board's Chairman, one of my responsibilities over the past five and a half years has been to meet with transportation accident survivors and victims' family members. I spend a lot of my time listening to their concerns and their desire to protect themselves and their families when they travel and to ensure that no other family ever has to endure a similar tragedy. Many of my conversations are with parents who lost children in traffic accidents. They all tell me the same thing - how frustrated they are at how difficult it is for them to ensure the safety of their children when travelling by automobile. About 15 months ago, I focused much of the Board's resources on two issues: child transportation safety and heavy vehicle safety.
That's what brings me here today, I want to talk about how we can improve automobile safety and how we can keep our most precious passengers, our children, safe when they're traveling on our nation's roadways. Let me give you just a few statistics:
Next Monday, I will be speaking to a group of highway safety leaders at the annual Lifesavers Conference in Atlanta about the state of child passenger safety in America. I can tell you, ladies and gentlemen, what I plan to tell them - as parents, as caregivers, as government officials, as automakers, as car dealers, and as reporters, we have failed our children and it's time to do the right thing and fix what we've broken.
Our children are the innocent victims of the highway safety culture we have created and perpetuated. As former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said, "There are not many places that children go that adults have not made dangerous for them." Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for our children. Over 1,100 children under age 10 will probably die in motor vehicle crashes this year. Of those children, 40 percent will not be buckled up.
Unfortunately, even if the parents do buckle in their children, thinking that they're protecting them - the vast majority of those parents will be wrong. But, in most cases, they won't know it until they're in an accident - and then it's too late. Eight out of 10 children are in child safety seats that aren't properly secured - putting them at risk of injury or death. The Safety Board estimates that 10 million children are in misused safety seats and not getting the protection that their parents think they are providing - even though 96 percent of those parents think otherwise according to a recent survey conducted by DaimlerChrysler and the National Safety Council.
In addition, most children are placed in restraint systems that are too advanced for their size. The Safety Board's 1996 study on child passenger safety found that most four- to eight-year-olds are in seat belts designed for adults - rather than in booster seats specifically designed to improve seatbelt fit for this group of children. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that only six percent of these children are in a booster seat. And, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just issued a report indicating that these youngsters are falling through a loophole in the laws that govern child safety seats. And, as a result, almost 500 of them are dying every year. NHTSA has introduced a new education campaign "Boost'em before you Buckle'em" that focuses much needed attention on this issue.
But, placing children in child restraints or booster seats is only part of the solution. Although some progress has been made over the years to enhance traffic safety through vehicle design, there has been little attention paid to designing vehicles so that they protect the children riding in them.
It's time to change the safety culture on our highways. Everyone
needs to know - and understand - that safety is their responsibility.
And, they need to know what's being done, what's not being done that can
be done, and what they can do to make their roadways safer for them and
their children. You, as members of the media, can be a powerful voice
in helping change that culture by what you choose to cover and how you
choose to cover it.
Today, I want to focus on just one part of the transportation community and what they can do - must do - to improve the safety of our children. Let me give you just a few examples of what automobile manufacturers can do today to change the safety culture on our highways.
During National Child Passenger Safety Week last month, of the 891 safety
seats inspected in the Washington, D.C. area, only 37 were properly installed.
That's a 96 percent misuse rate. But, as a result of that activity,
891 children are safer today.
One of your fellow journalists recently told my staff about her own frustrating experience of trying to install a child safety seat. Cathy Strong, of the Associated Press, isn't here today because her first baby is due this week. She and her husband tried to install safety seats in their vehicles. Even after reading the vehicle and safety seat owners' manuals, they still couldn't install the seats securely. Finally, they gave up and made an appointment at a local DaimlerChrysler dealer to have the seats installed in - although neither of their vehicles were DaimlerChrysler products. As a result, Cathy's new baby will come home in a properly secured safety seat. And, the new parents will have one less concern.
Not every parent is as familiar as Cathy is with the problems that can be encountered just trying to install a child seat - or with the tragic consequences of not getting it right.
This past January, a young mother was driving in Maryland, with her seven-month-old son in the back seat in a forward-facing child safety seat. As she made a left turn, she collided with a schoolbus traveling in the opposite direction. The car spun around, striking two other vehicles. The little boy was ejected from the car and was killed. The mother survived with moderate injuries.
Although the mother thought she had done everything possible to protect her child, our investigators learned that the child safety seat was installed in the car correctly, but the child had not been properly secured in the seat. The shoulder straps were improperly positioned, the wrong latch position was used, and the shoulder strap clip was too low. Consequently, a little boy died in a car crash that was survivable.
That mother and every other parent deserve to have somewhere to go so
that they can be sure that they are protecting their children and they
deserve to know where and how to get the help they need. I want to
again publicly thank DaimlerChrysler and General Motors for being responsible
members of their communities. Unfortunately, the response from other
automobile manufacturers to our request for fitting stations has been disappointing.
I'm hopeful that they'll commit to this program in the near future.
I'll discuss this issue in more detail next Monday at the Lifesavers' Conference
The second thing that manufacturers can do to help change the safety culture on our highways is:
The Safety Board first asked manufacturers to consider installing center
lap/shoulder belts in all newly manufactured passenger vehicles following
a 1986 safety study on the performance of lap belts in frontal crashes.
Although I'm pleased that more vehicles have lap and shoulder belts in
the center rear seat position, I'm concerned that few minivans or sport
utility vehicles - today's family car - have lap/shoulder belts available
for children in all back seat positions.
Safety advocates have told parents that the safest place for their children is the center position in the back seat because it's the farthest away from a side or frontal crash. Parents have been listening. NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System, or FARS, data shows that 42 percent of all back seat occupants seated in the center position are under the age of 13 and 78 percent of them are under the age of 21. It seems obvious to me that restraints in the center seat position should provide the same level of safety as those in the outboard seat positions. Last April, I challenged manufacturers and their designers to put children first by designing lap/shoulder belts for all seating positions in all vehicles.
The Board has also recommended that lap/shoulder belts in the rear outboard seating positions should fit older children comfortably and securely. Manufacturers have argued that the adjustable upper shoulder belt anchorages, now standard in the front seat, aren't feasible in the back seat because the back seat's design renders the anchorage ineffective. If that's true, it's time for manufacturers to put their design teams to work looking for alternative solutions - such as a shoulder belt adjustment that can be used in the back seat for small-statured adults and for children who have outgrown their booster seats.
Lastly, the Board believes that vehicles need to have built-in child safety seats. Although a few manufacturers offer a built-in safety seat, it is almost solely an optional equipment item, and often isn't marketed very well.
Many auto manufacturers have suggested that built-in child seats are a tough sell; that many people who have children young enough to use them aren't in the market for a new car; and that car dealers don't want to stock vehicles with integrated seats. A little ingenuity and creativity on the part of manufacturers could solve the problem. Dealerships should be able to keep a small supply of built-in seats available for consumers who want them. And, since the rear seats of most minivans can be easily removed, a small supply of seats with built-in child restraints could be made available as replacements as well. Finally, incentives could be provided to dealerships and salespeople for every integrated safety seat they sell.
This is by no means a comprehensive list. But it is a start. As I mentioned earlier, I'll report on the state of child passenger safety in America next week in Atlanta. I'll once again be asking the automobile and child restraint manufacturers, the insurance industry, and other corporations that support child health and safety to establish fitting stations and design automobiles for children. In addition, I'll also ask them to:
Thank you for inviting me to be here today.