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National Occupant Protection Executive Conference, Raleigh, North Carolina
Jim Hall
National Occupant Protection Executive Conference, Raleigh, North Carolina

Good Evening

As you know, we in Washington are in the midst of a crisis that has forced hundreds of thousands of Federal workers out of their jobs. This furlough even affected my agency. Twenty percent of the NTSB's 350 employees were layed off last week. Fortunately, for the Safety Board, the furlough lasted only one day because the Transportation Appropriation bill was signed. But for thousands of others, the crisis continues.

I'm not going to take sides in the dispute, even though I have my personal opinions, as I'm sure you do. I will, though, go so far as to say that when we reach an impasse of this magnitude, we look for someone to lead us to a solution. In short, we look for leadership. And, I am confident that leadership will eventually solve this crisis.

That is what I want to talk to you about today -- leadership. That is what we need in our campaign to increase the usage of occupant protection systems. That is what brings me to North Carolina, to acknowledge leadership shown by this State.

But all of you are leaders, and through your leadership we've already accomplished a lot. 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, and that 49 of the 50 states would have mandatory seatbelt use laws?

For those of you who don't know it, Maine voters upheld the referendum on their mandatory seatbelt use law in the recent elections, so New Hampshire is now the only State without a mandatory use law.

Many of you here tonight worked hard to accomplish these results and you should be proud. But, as you know, your work is not done. We need to get that other one-third of the population to buckle up. Because they are the hard-to-reach population, we will need to be assertive and creative.

If we are to believe a Prevention Magazine study of driver habits, more people drink a beverage while driving than buckle a seatbelt. About the same number eat while driving, and almost as many people change a CD or a tape in a moving car as buckle up. Society still has some work to do on establishing priorities.

I am extremely impressed with the innovative program that Governor Hunt and Insurance Commissioner Long implemented two years ago in North Carolina. They rightly recognized that a long-standing commitment to highway safety can pay large benefits in lives and dollars saved. I am also impressed with the involvement and commitment of so many different organizations in North Carolina to this program. The Governor's team of highway safety, law enforcement, researchers and the insurance community is clearly the key to the program's success.

Experience has shown that strong legislative initiatives and highly visible law enforcement and public information campaigns are the most effective methods to increase seatbelt use. You have proven that here in North Carolina by increasing seatbelt use in the State in two years from the mid-sixty percentage range to the low eighties.

Earlier this year, the Safety Board examined the data from North Carolina and other States where the usage rates are high. We found that States with primary enforcement laws average about a 13-percent higher seatbelt use rate than States with secondary enforcement laws. As a result, in June, the Board issued a recommendation to the 39 states that have secondary enforcement laws, the 2 States without laws, and the District of Columbia asking that they enact legislation that provides for primary enforcement of mandatory safety belt use laws. The Board also suggested that the States consider provisions such as adequate monetary fines and the imposition of driver license penalty points as methods to further increase the number of people who buckle up.

As States achieve higher use rates, it will become increasingly difficult to motivate a certain segment of the population where neither traditional sanctions nor public education have had or are likely to have an effect on driving habits. A survey conducted last year of North Carolina drivers found that those who don't wear seatbelts tend to:

  • be males younger than 35;
  • drive older vehicles;
  • have crashes and/or violations on their driving records;
  • admit to having drunk heavily during the past year and have a record of arrests; and
  • have no health care coverage.

To change the behavior of this group of hard-core nonusers, legislative initiatives, like heavy fines and penalty points, in addition to primary enforcement will be needed. To enact these legislative initiatives will take the leadership of those of you in the room tonight to go back to your States and establish the teams you need to move ahead. It may also require you to inspire the leadership of those above you, such as the Governor and legislative leaders in your state.

I pledge to you the total cooperation of the National Transportation Safety Board in your efforts. If you need us to come to your State to testify or otherwise participate in your efforts, please let us know. You need not fear failure due to our lack of support.

Law enforcement is critical to increasing both safety belt and child safety seat use. Higher use cannot be accomplished without people believing that the risk of enforcement is real. "Click It or Ticket" must be a real occurrence, not just a catchy phrase. North Carolina has shown the risk of a ticket to be real with thousands of tickets issued for nonuse of seatbelts and child safety seats. The statewide enforcement efforts in North Carolina are to be commended. In addition, highly visible enforcement in this State has had the collateral benefit of apprehending a variety of criminal offenders; this is a real public safety benefit and can raise the public's acceptance of such campaigns.

With respect to child passenger safety, I would like to discuss for a minute a matter about which the Safety Board recently issued recommendations. In April 1994, the Board began a safety study on the effectiveness of occupant restraints for children. Out of about 140 accidents included in this study, I want to highlight 7 accidents in which an infant or small child was killed or severely injured as a result of an air bag deployment. In each accident, the child sustained head or neck injuries as a result of direct contact with the air bag or contact between the infant safety seat and the air bag compartment cover flap.

Based on the low impact speeds of most of these accidents, and the lack of intrusion into the passenger compartment where these children were seated, the Safety Board believes that in each of the accidents the child would have survived the accident with minor or no injuries had the air bag not deployed. While the Safety Board recognizes the effectiveness of air bags in most accident situations and the number of lives saved as a result of air bags, the Board is concerned that air bags might kill or severely injure small children under certain circumstances.

As a result, just 3 weeks ago, we issued a series of recommendations aimed at educating 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 a passenger side air bag. I would urge each of you here to use every channel that is available to you to pass this message on so that no more babies or small children die needless deaths.

Let's turn our attention for a minute to alcohol, another area in which the highway safety community has made great strides and in which North Carolina's "Booze It and Lose It" program has had an impact. And this is another area where you can exercise your leadership.

In 1993 the Board issued a set of recommendations to reduce youth highway crashes. We are increasingly disturbed by the seeming lack of concern by some youths about the dangers of drinking and driving. There were some highly publicized alcohol-related crashes in the Washington, D.C. area involving teenagers last year. Yet, interviews soon after revealed no change in the drinking and driving patterns of many of the dead teenagers' classmates. This came on the heels of a national study showing an alarming increase in binge drinking among high school and college students.

The Safety Board has asked all States to review their age-21 laws to address deficiencies in those statutes, and urged them to adopt zero tolerance laws for minors. Comprehensive age-21 laws should prohibit the sale to persons under age 21 and also should prohibit the attempt to purchase, possess, and consume alcohol by persons under age 21. Further, the law should penalize an underage person who misrepresents age or who uses fraudulent identification.

When we issued the recommendations, only 6 States had laws that closed all the loopholes. Now, 12 States and the District of Columbia have comprehensive age-21 laws and action has been taken on 29 laws in 15 States.

Zero tolerance laws for underage drivers recommended by the Board should be linked to administrative license revocation, provide for extended license suspension, and include public information programs targeted to young drivers.

When the Board recommended that all States enact zero tolerance laws for underage drivers, only 15 states had any form of lower BAC laws for underage drivers. Since then, 18 additional states and the District of Columbia have enacted zero tolerance laws and 8 States, including North Carolina, have improved existing laws. Some of these states have outstanding youth information programs to enhance effectiveness of the law.

I like to think that this is the result of leadership on the part of the Safety Board. But I know it took the efforts of all of us combined; your leadership and ours. The other 16 States need to take action and 5 of the 34 states with zero tolerance laws need to reduce their current BAC level or increase the applicable age in their current zero tolerance laws. We have also recommended enactment of a graduated license system for young novice drivers to better prepare them for full licensure. This proven lifesaving measure is absent in the vast majority of State legislation.

Passage of these laws will take your leadership, because you are the people who can make these changes.

I said earlier that the team formed by Governor Hunt that includes highway safety, law enforcement, researchers and the insurance community was the key to North Carolina's success in increasing seatbelt usage rates. I truly believe that without that kind of unified approach, the successes experienced would have been less certain. But first and foremost was the leadership of Governor Hunt in building and supporting the team. I can say from my experience in Tennessee government and at the National Transportation Safety Board, that you cannot succeed without the support of the top leadership.

I also learned when I worked in the Governor's office that in many safety matters, it took the Federal carrot, in the form of highway funds, to get the rules adopted on the State level. I hope Congress thinks long and hard before eliminating those carrots.Leaders often need to be educated. They do not know everything that you know about a particular issue. As far as safety belt use is concerned, there is enough support for upgrading mandatory use laws to primary enforcement and for considering tougher sanctions for violators of the laws.

But, tonight I am truly preaching to the choir, for you have already demonstrated the leadership qualities that save lives in your States. I am sure you believe as I do that responsibility for public safety is a public trust. While the public can measure the accident statistics that represent the failures of our safety system easier than the lives saved, we must and should nourish each other knowing the productive lives that have been saved by our commitment. Yes, by our devotion to our work.

Thank you for all the work you've done to achieve the success we've reached so far, and thank you for all you're going to do. The National Transportation Safety Board is ready to do with you whatever it takes to get the job done.

Thank you, and good luck.



Jim Hall's Speeches