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Remarks at the Rotary Club, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Jim Hall
Rotary Club, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Thank you, for your kind introduction and for inviting me to be here this afternoon. It's always nice to be back home in Tennessee among friends. It's hard to believe but it has been 1,841 days since I last spoke to you. Since then, the Safety Board has been involved in an extraordinary level of activity. In have regretfully been called to the scenes of a number of major tragedies during my tenure, the most recent being my visit today to Conasauga and the site of the tragic Murray County school bus accident. Three of our most precious citizens - Kayla Silvers, Daniel Pack and Amber Pritchett - lost their lives at that grade crossing, and others are seriously hurt.

When I became the Chairman of the NTSB almost six years ago, I didn't realize how much influence a small 400-person agency could have on the nation's discourse on safety. But, that's exactly what Congress meant to do when it created the Safety Board 33 years ago as an independent agency, separate from the Department of Transportation (DOT).

All of us associated with the nation's transportation system - whether in government or industry - understand and appreciate the extraordinarily high level of safety we enjoy - and demand. But we at the Safety Board perhaps have a unique perspective of that system, because we are called in when something goes wrong, when accidents occur. One thing we have learned through our investigations is that we need improved procedures and mechanisms in place to ensure that this safety level is maintained as our transportation infrastructure ages and becomes more congested, and new generations are added to replace our existing workforce. We need to develop a safety culture.

Today, I want to focus on the safety culture of one of the five transportation modes we are charged with investigating - highway - particularly as it relates to the safety of our children.

Why concentrate on highways? It is important that all of our modes of transportation continue to improve their safety records. After all, we lose hundreds of people in aviation, rail and marine accidents every year, and sometimes dozens in pipeline accidents. But together they amount to 6 percent of all transportation fatalities in the United States. Highway crashes now account for more than 40,000 deaths and 3 ½ million injuries annually. They're also the leading cause of death for young Americans between the ages of 6 to 27. Since 1990, more than 81,000 children under the age of 20 have died in motor vehicle crashes, including more than 15,000 youngsters under the age of 10 - that's 33 children under 10 dying every week in a motor vehicle crash. In the last decade, we've also lost nearly 52,000 teenagers between the ages of 15 and 20 - over 111 every week - in traffic crashes.

In addition to the tragic human and emotional toll, these crashes cost the American economy more than $150 billion each year, much of that borne by the states.

For the past 15 months, I've focused much of the Board's resources on examining highway safety issues - especially child transportation safety and heavy truck and bus safety; advocating ways to enhance the safety culture on our highways; and getting regulators, manufacturers, trucking and bus company operators, vehicle drivers, and passengers in those vehicles more involved.

As part of that effort, we conducted four hearings on heavy vehicle safety. The first hearing, held last April in Washington, D.C., focused on government oversight of commercial vehicles, validity of crash data, and the changing nature of roadway transportation. The second hearing, held last August in Nashville, focused on advanced safety technologies and their potential to reduce the number of accidents involving commercial vehicles. The third hearing, held last November in Los Angeles, focused on NAFTA and whether vehicles and drivers from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have comparable standards and oversight for vehicles, drivers and motor carriers. The last hearing was held in January in New Orleans and examined the adequacy of oversight for the more than eight million commercial driver license (CDL) holders and the medical certification process for those drivers.

The staff is in the process of preparing a report on the results of those hearings along with a set of recommendations to correct the problems we uncovered.

Let me turn to one issue that hasn't received the attention that it requires or deserves - the safety of our children on our highways. I have devoted much of my personal time and energy during my time on the Board on that issue. Highway crashes are the leading cause of children's deaths in the United States. But, if we are to eliminate it as a cause, we must be willing to change the safety culture on our roadways.

And a major part of that culture change must be directed toward protecting our child passengers. Last year, I asked the automobile manufacturers to put children first in the design of their vehicles. It's time for them to add features that will better protect children, such as 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.

In January 1999, the Safety Board also recommended the establishment of fitting stations to reduce the widespread misuse of child safety seats. For two decades, we have permitted a situation to exist in which eight out of 10 children who are buckled up in safety seats are improperly secured. Many parents did not realize that their child was not properly secured until after a crash involving death or serious injury.

We called upon the automobile industry, child restraint manufacturers, the states, and NHTSA, to support the establishment of child safety seat fitting stations where parents and caregivers could go for car seat check-ups to ensure that they:

    · use the correct safety seat for the size of their child;

    · install the seat properly;

    · secure their child into the seat properly; and

    · get the correct information about safety seat and vehicle compatibility.

Fitting stations are becoming a reality. DaimlerChrysler and General Motors, two of the world's largest automobile manufacturers, in response to NTSB recommendations have committed time, money, and personnel to make fitting stations available to the public. Other manufacturers are expected to follow suit soon. In addition, a number of states are also setting up fitting stations for their residents.

Last fall, I asked the National Governors' Association to make highway safety their number one priority. With regard to children, I asked them to take two specific actions.

· First, to strengthen and enforce laws requiring children to be buckled up and in the back seat.

In six states, a two-year-old can be legally restrained by a seatbelt - although seatbelts, like air bags, are designed for adults. Almost half of our states do not require restraint use for a child in the back seat. No state currently requires booster seats for children between the ages of four and eight. Only three states (Rhode Island, Delaware, and North Carolina) require that children sit in the back seat even though the back seat is safer than the front seat for children in most crashes.

· And, second, to adopt comprehensive graduated licensing bills to help young drivers learn to drive in the safest possible environment, to get ample driving time in supervised situations and to reward them for driving safely.

I'd like to show you a video that the NTSB is creating to highlight the various technologies that are available today to protect drivers and passengers. I'd appreciate hearing your comments on ways we can improve this video.

[A video was shown at this time]

Most of the child safety features you just saw are not currently available in automobiles, and most of the other features are available only if you own a high-end Mercedes or other such vehicle. These technologies are available today. We need to get them to you, the consumer. Auto companies will listen to their customers, but their customers have to tell them what they consider acceptable as basic safety equipment.

Thomas Jefferson once said, "The care of human life and happiness is the first and only legitimate object of good government." He's right - a government is responsible for ensuring the well being of its citizens. But, the government can't do it alone. It takes all of us, working together, to improve the safety culture on our highways. If any part of the system fails, we all fail. We all need to be open to new approaches to solve not only the problems at hand, but those we know loom in the future. We must be prepared to find innovative solutions to new, more complex problems. And, those solutions must be targeted and integrated to ensure that everyone has a role to play and is held accountable for fulfilling that role.

Thank you again for inviting me to be here today.