Remarks of Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
World Traffic Safety Symposium
New York International Automobile Show
New York, New York, April 8, 1999

Putting Children First

Good afternoon. I appreciate the opportunity to be here with you today to discuss our mutual interest in traffic safety.

Most of you may have probably heard about the National Transportation Safety Board because of our investigations of major aviation accidents during our 32-year history. However, we also investigate accidents in all of the other transportation modes - highway, rail, marine, and pipeline. Indeed, I believe our work to improve traffic safety has had the greatest impact - simply because there are more highway fatalities than in all of the other modes combined. Over the years, we have made almost 1,800 highway recommendations which have resulted in safety improvements such as the minimum age-21 drinking laws, graduated licensing laws, the center high-mounted stop light, bridge abutment protection, drunk driving laws, safer school buses, safer highway bridges, and commercial truck safety. Our 1995 urgent safety recommendations, our 1996 safety study on child passenger safety, and our 1997 public forum propelled the national debate on airbag safety. Next week, I will chair a three-day public hearing in Washington on large truck and bus safety. That hearing will be followed by two others on truck safety later in the year.

My appearance here today is part of our campaign to make 1999 the Year of Child Transportation Safety. A large portion of this endeavor includes ensuring the safety of children who are traveling in the approximately 210 million automobiles on our roads.

As the Board's Chairman, one of my responsibilities is 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 not only protect themselves and their families when they travel, but to also ensure that no other family ever has to endure a similar tragedy. Many of my conversations are with parents who have lost their 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.

We've all heard the statistics indicating that traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for children over the age of 5. In the 1990s alone, more than 60,000 children, infants to teenagers, have died in traffic crashes. That's more than all of the American servicemen killed during our 10-year involvement in Vietnam. Of those 60,000 children, nearly 9,000 of them were under the age of 10. That means, on average, 24 children under the age of 10 die every week in motor vehicle crashes.

This needless, tragic loss of our children must stop. Hillary Clinton, in her book, It Takes A Village, observed that "Nothing is more important to our shared future than the well-being of children." I think everyone would agree with her. We all - the government, the automobile industry, and private citizens - must do more to protect the well-being and safety of our most precious resource - our children. I came here today for one specific purpose - to ask the automobile designers and manufacturers to put children first in the engineering and design of all vehicles. While some progress has been made to enhance traffic safety through vehicle design over the years, there has been little or no focus on protecting the smallest, most vulnerable occupants. And, yet, we all know that the technology is available today to immediately improve the safety of children riding in vehicles.

Indeed, some manufacturers have already taken a few steps in that direction.

But, this is only a small start. More - much more - must and can be done. Now is the time for vehicle manufacturers to take a fresh look at the problems, find creative ways to solve them, and then immediately implement them. Henry Ford once said that he was "looking for a lot of men [and I'd add women] who have the infinite capacity to not know what can't be done." After seeing all of the innovative ideas on the vehicles here this week, I'm certain that nothing I'm suggesting is outside the capabilities of vehicle manufacturers.

As a start, the Safety Board believes that the back seat should be designed with children in mind. And, in that regard, we have made numerous recommendations to the automobile manufacturers to design child-friendly back seats. I want to spend a few minutes discussing four recommendations we made as a result of our 1996 safety study on "The Performance and Use of Child Restraints, Seatbelts, and Airbags for Children in Passenger Vehicles."

One recommendation asked for a uniform attachment for child seats that would give parents and caregivers a better opportunity to properly secure their child safety seats.

Child seat checkups and safety clinics have consistently shown that child safety restraints are misused more than 80 percent of the time. After participating in several such clinics myself, I can attest that the problem isn't a lack of effort on the part of parents. Let me give you just a small example of what they're up against.

For model year 1999, there are more than 200 different cars and light trucks on sale in the US. In addition, there are about 68 different models of child car seats on the market today. This results in nearly 14,000 potential combinations of cars and car seats, each with their own unique compatibility issues. That's just for this year. Most cars on the road today are roughly nine years old on average and families tend to reuse car seats or pass them on to other families rather than buy new ones. So, in reality, there may be as many as 1,000 vehicle models and 100 different car seats - a possible 100,000 ways to confuse the average consumer.

I am pleased that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently announced a new rule, as a result of our recommendation, that establishes a more uniform way of securing child restraints in vehicles without relying on seat belts. I am even more pleased that some automobile manufacturers are already installing them on their model year 2000 vehicles. Hopefully, this new uniform anchorage attachment will make it easier for parents and caregivers to securely fasten a child safety seat into the outboard positions in vehicles as required by the NHTSA rule. Unfortunately, the rule only requires a tether to be placed in the center back seat position. I hope that manufacturers will go beyond what is required by installing a uniform anchorage attachment in the center position where research has shown that children are the safest.

Although all new vehicles will eventually have the uniform anchorage attachment, it will be at least 10 to 15 years before every vehicle on the road and every available child restraint will be compatible with the uniform anchorage system. So, although there's a fix out there, for the foreseeable future, parents will continue to have problems ensuring that their child seats are properly installed and used.

That's why we recommended, in January of this year, that states establish permanent fitting stations where parents can have the installation of their child restraint checked and corrected. Such fitting stations have been used in Australia for over 15 years. They are typically housed in automobile dealerships or repair stations where mechanics can install the restraint system for parents and show them how to properly use it.

The Australians have shown impressive success in reducing misuse of child safety seats as a result of these permanent fitting stations. While misuse in the United States is about 80 percent, misuse in New South Wales, Australia, for example, is 35 percent or less.

Response to our fitting station recommendation has been encouraging. Several automobile manufacturers and a number of large advocacy organizations, including Kiwanis International, National Safe Kids, and the American Automobile Association, are working on plans to establish fitting stations. In addition, Idaho, Hawaii, and Indiana already have permanent checkpoint locations and several other states are developing plans to establish them.

The second recommendation from our 1996 safety study asked for center lap/shoulder belts in the rear seats of all newly manufactured passenger vehicles. We first asked manufacturers to consider installing center lap/shoulder belts following a 1986 safety study on the performance of lap belts in frontal crashes. Although I am pleased that more vehicles have lap and shoulder belts in the center rear seat position, I am concerned that few minivans or sport utility vehicles - the family car of the 90's - have these belts available for children in all back seat positions.

Safety advocates tell parents that the safest place for their children is the center position in the back seat because that position is farthest away from a side or frontal crash. Many 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. Therefore, it seems obvious that restraints in the center seat position should provide the same level of safety as those in the outboard seat positions. I would challenge manufacturers and their designers to put children first by designing lap/shoulder belts for all seating positions in all vehicles.

A third 1996 recommendation asked for adjustable upper seat belt anchorages in outboard seating positions to help them fit older children more comfortably and securely. When we first asked manufacturers nine years ago to voluntarily install adjustable upper seat belt anchorages in the front seat, they were very responsive. That hasn't been the case this time.

Manufacturers have argued that adjustable upper anchorages are not feasible in the back seat because the design of the back seat renders the anchorage ineffective. If this is true, then 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.

In our fourth 1996 recommendation, we asked for more built-in child safety seats. Although Chrysler, Ford, GM, Nissan, Toyota, and Volvo 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 indicated that integrated 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. Again, it seems that a little ingenuity and creativity on the part of manufacturers could solve the problem. In these days of modular vehicle assembly, dealerships should be able to keep a small supply of built-in seats available for consumers who want them. Similarly, since the rear seats of most minivans are designed to 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.

In addition to the four recommendations in 1996, we issued a recommendation in 1997 asking the states to require that children under 13 ride in the back seat if a seat position is available. There was unanimous agreement at our 1997 public forum on airbags that children should ride in the back seat. Only Rhode Island and Delaware have taken any action in regard to that recommendation and they only require children to ride in the back seat of cars equipped with airbags.

Implementation of this recommendation has been impeded by the manufacturers' failure to design the back seat with children in mind even though our analysis of NHTSA's 1996 and 1997 FARS data indicates that when children are in the car, they are placed in the back seat about 70 percent of the time. In fact, one-third of all back seat occupants are under the age of 12 and two-thirds of them are under the age of 21. In addition, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also found in 1997 that the risk of death is 53% less for children in the back seat when a passenger airbag is present. The risk is reduced to 35% when no airbag is present.

Let's be honest, despite overwhelming statistics indicating the need for better protection for children, child passenger safety has been an afterthought when it comes to designing cars. That needs to change. It's time to take the approach shown in a new commercial for the Honda Odyssey minivan. In it, every member of the family, including the newborn infant, is represented by a lawyer in negotiations to determine the design for the family's new vehicle. That's the way I'd like to see every new vehicle designed - not by gathering a bunch of lawyers together - nothing would ever get off the drawing board - but by taking the concerns and needs of every occupant into consideration before any decisions are made.

Certainly, we need look no further than the first generation airbag to understand the consequences of not doing so. We learned quickly and painfully that designing and certifying a system to protect all occupants using only an average-sized adult male dummy can have tragic results for other passengers.

Because of the earlier problems with airbags, the crash test requirements for cars and light trucks are being revised to include tests for smaller passengers. However, the changes will only apply to basic frontal crash tests and only for front seat occupants. We still need crash test standards to guarantee the safety of back seat occupants. We need a back seat test that incorporates safety requirements for both frontal and side impacts. It wouldn't be hard to do. There are already tests mandated for compliance with front passenger crash protection standards and other government-run tests for NHTSA's New Car Assessment Program. In both types of tests, the whole car is crashed, but the back seat is empty. We should include child dummies in the back seats of test vehicles to see how well they protect children from head and neck injuries and vehicle intrusion.

These back seat tests should also evaluate side airbags to avoid the same kind of problem we had with frontal airbags. In fact, Audi and BMW have been warning parents about the possibility that side airbags in the rear seats of their cars can harm children. Additionally, NHTSA has already asked manufacturers to thoroughly test side impact airbags with child and adult crash dummies in a wide variety of positions to guard against serious injuries to people who may be too close when a side airbag inflates. GM has been testing side airbags and has developed a side airbag with special venting that prevents the bag from fully inflating when a child or any person is too close.

Then we need to share this information with the public through the New Car Assessment Program because many buyers use this guide to decide which car is safer. Back seat test results are already being reported in Europe.

With all of the creative minds designing vehicles throughout the industry, I'm sure that more effective designs can be developed to make vehicles safer for children - at a modest cost to both the industry and the consumer. We cannot create fixes that only allow families who can afford the more expensive cars to have access to the best safety advances. All children deserve to ride in a vehicle that puts their safety first - whether their parents drive the biggest sport utility vehicle or the smallest passenger car.

As some manufacturers are already discovering - safety sells. If you doubt that - go out on the floor; look at what features are being promoted; and see where the buyer's attention is being focused. It's clear that the marketplace is demanding safety and some manufacturers are willing to supply it.

But, it's now time for all manufacturers to take the next step - to make design decisions specifically directed at the safety of our children. It's time to add features that will shut off airbags when child seats are present, that permit child restraints to be easily secured in the back seats, that include lap/shoulder belts with adjustable upper anchorages in all rear seat positions, and that incorporate integrated or built-in child safety seats. But, it's also time to do more.

It's time for manufacturers to challenge their design teams to look beyond making cars faster, sleeker, and more attractive - it's time to put children and their safety first in vehicle design. Technology is developing faster than regulators can issue rules. Manufacturers can't wait for the government to tell them what to do. It's time for them to take the lead - to be proactive and innovative. It's time for every vehicle manufacturer to accept our challenge - to put children first in vehicle design.

Thank you for inviting me and being so attentive.

 

| Chairman Hall's Speeches