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Remarks at the Roundtable on Child Restraint Design
Jim Hall
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Roundtable on Child Restraint Design, Washington, DC

Good morning and welcome. We've asked you here today to discuss what can be done to make it easier for parents and caregivers to safely buckle their child into a child restraint system.

In 1996, the Safety Board conducted a comprehensive crash investigation study on child restraint use. The Board found that child restraints were not tightly secured in the vehicle and that the child was not always properly secured in the restraint. Some of the more common mistakes were loose harness straps, non-use of the harness clip, improperly threaded harness straps, or using the wrong harness straps altogether. We also found that even when parents said that they read the owner's manual on how to use the child restraint, they still made mistakes.

As a result of this report, we issued an urgent recommendation to the child restraint manufacturers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to work together to evaluate the design of child restraints with the goal of simplifying placement of a child in a restraint system. We have also included this recommendation on our list of Most Wanted safety recommendations. Unfortunately, to date, we have had very little response to our 1996 recommendation. I invited you to this meeting in the hope that we will get some positive action on the recommendation.

We know that most parents who use child restraints are well-meaning and that they use the restraints because they want to protect their child. They become justifiably frustrated when they cannot be sure whether they have properly secured the child in the restraint. It's even more frustrating when they think they've done it right, only to find out, after a crash, that the harness was fastened incorrectly or was in the wrong slots for the child's height.

For as long as there have been child restraints, parents and caregivers have had to ask two questions each time they buckle their child into the car. One - Did I buckle the child restraint into the car properly? And two - is my child properly buckled into the restraint system? The first question should disappear over the next 10 or so years as a result of NHTSA's recent requirement that all child restraints have a universal anchorage system that is not dependant on the vehicle seat belt. The second question, of securing the child in the restraint system, however, will not be addressed by the universal anchorage system. This is a critical question because the child must be buckled into the restraint for any protection to be offered. And unless the internal safety harness is used properly, the child restraint will not provide full protection.

It's simple really. To be effective, a safety device must be easy to use, especially when ease of use can make the difference between life and death. Child restraints aren't user friendly. We must - and can -- do better.

As many of you may be aware, I have focused my attention this year on child transportation safety. In January, the Safety Board asked the states, the federal government, and the automobile and child restraint manufacturers to coordinate the establishment of multiple, permanent locations - or fitting stations - throughout the country where parents can, at their convenience, have their child restraint inspected. One of the reasons we asked for fitting stations is because, as I already noted, parents frequently - and unwittingly -- make mistakes buckling their child into the seat. As I am sure you heard, last week DaimlerChrysler answered our call. By November 2000, DaimlerChrysler -- with the assistance of Fisher-Price and the National Safety Council -- will have 1,000 dealerships across the country that will offer free child restraint inspections to their customers. I hope we will soon see other automobile manufacturers step up to the plate as aggressively as DaimlerChrysler has.

In April, I asked the automobile manufacturers to put children first when designing vehicles . Currently, all vehicle design, including that of the back seat, is centered around a mid-size adult male. Not only is the back seat generally a safer place for children to sit, air bags have created a situation in which children must ride in the back seat to avoid being injured by a deploying air bag. It is time for the back seats of vehicles to be designed with the children who need to sit there in mind.

And today, I am asking you - as the makers of the restraint systems that protect our smallest and most vulnerable children -- to consider what else you can do to simplify the placement of a child in a child restraint system and provide the highest level of safety to our children. I understand that a number of improvements have already been made to improve the comfort and convenience of child restraints, including inertial harness systems and additional harness locations. But child restraints continue to be difficult to use and it is time for us to take another look at what can be done to improve them .

There is no greater measure of a society than the way in which it takes care of its children, because our children are our future. Today's meeting is not intended to generate any new recommendations from the Safety Board. Rather, our goal is to stimulate discussion, ideas, and eventually design changes to eliminate the use problems that exist today. I hope that today's discussion will be candid and that everyone will be open-minded to the potential for improving this very important safety device.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this important issue. It is now my pleasure to introduce Don Bischoff, the Executive Director, of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

| Chairman Hall's Speeches