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Remarks before Economic Development, Transportation and Cultural Affairs Committee - Southern Legislative Conference, Biloxi, Mississippi
Jim Hall
Economic Development, Transportation and Cultural Affairs Committee - Southern Legislative Conference, Biloxi, Mississippi

Slides from Presentation

Good morning. I want to thank Representative Tommy Woods for inviting me to talk with you today about a matter of critical importance - protecting our children on our highways.

With me today are Antion Downs and Nicholas Worrell from my office, and Steve Blackistone, the Board's State and Local Liaison Director and Phil Frame from our Office of Public Affairs.

I come to you today not only as Chairman of the NTSB, but also as a former State government official in Tennessee and fellow southerner. I had the honor of serving six years in the cabinet of Governor Ned McWherter. The first thing newly-elected Governor McWherter required of his staff was to read the Tennessee State Constitution.

In Tennessee, as in the U.S. Constitution, the first and most fundamental function of government is to protect the life and safety of its citizens. It is so fundamental that every State in the Southern Legislative Conference (SLC) has it in their constitutions. But, this morning I would suggest to you, that when it comes to our children and their safety on our highways, none of the States of the SLC have fulfilled this most basic responsibility.

Not one State in the SLC provides the highest level of safety available. Nor is there one level of safety for all children across the SLC States or the nation. In fact, the southern States are providing a substantially lower level of safety than are the other States. This situation is unacceptable, and you, as public officials, can change it now.

  • All children under 4 should be required to be in child restraints that are appropriate for their age, height, and weight
  • Children ages 4 through 8 should be required to use booster seats
  • Substitution of lap/shoulder belts should not be permitted for children under age 8
  • All children under age 13 should be required to ride safely in the back seat, if a seat position is available
  • States should support the establishment of permanent child seat fitting stations across the State to help parents and caregivers ensure that their children are properly buckled up
  • Children should be transported to school, daycare, Headstart or other programs only in vehicles that conform to Federal school bus standards
  • All States should enact a comprehensive graduated driver license law for young drivers
  • Of course, all young drivers and passengers should be alcohol- and drug-free and properly restrained in the vehicle

You can see from this matrix of State laws that the SLC States do not provide the highest level of safety nor is there one level of safety in the South. You need to take action wherever you see a circle that has not been filled in. As you can see, there's a lot of work to still to be done.

Some SLC States have taken action and they deserve to be recognized. Maryland was one of the first States with a graduated license law, and my home State of Tennessee recently enacted a comprehensive driver's license law. South Carolina requires that children be transported in vehicles meeting federal school bus safety standards. North Carolina has a comprehensive child restraint law, graduated license law, and high safety belt use rates. Georgia and Florida have good graduated license laws, but both could be improved. Kentucky was one of the first States to establish a permanent fitting station.

Texas, Louisiana, Maryland, Oklahoma, Georgia, and North Carolina all have primary enforcement safety belt laws. West Virginia, Mississippi and Missouri also passed graduated license laws recently. I congratulate you on your success to date and I challenge you to address the important work that remains.

Unfortunately, southern States have a significantly higher child highway fatality rate than the rest of the nation.

Let me show you in detail how highway crashes have affected children in our region.

  • Since 1990, nearly 7,200 children under age 10 died in motor vehicle crashes. That means 15 children under the age of 10 are dying every week in motor vehicle crashes in SLC States.
  • Nearly 6,300 children between the ages of 10 and 15 died in SLC States since 1990. That is two deaths every day.
  • During that same time period, nearly 24,300 teens between 16 and 20 died in traffic crashes in SLC States. That's about 52 each week.
  • Since 1990, 37,707 children under age 20 have died in motor vehicle crashes in SLC States.

And, in 1998 alone, 4,251 people died on Southern highways in crashes involving young drivers.

The slide you see shows the number of fatalities in each State in this region. All but one loses over 100 children every year on its highways. These children represent our future and they are our responsibility. Their loss diminishes us all.

In addition, hundreds of thousands of children have been injured in highway crashes in your States since 1990, and some received injuries that will last a lifetime. From 1990 through 1998, over 1.5 million children in your States were injured in motor vehicle crashes. In 1998 alone, an estimated 161,223 children were injured in the SLC States - 422 each day.

If these numbers don't appall you, perhaps the monetary cost will. From 1990 through 1998, child fatalities and injuries cost SLC States a total of $83.5 billion dollars. While most of these costs were borne by your citizens and their insurers, State and local government costs amounted to $7.5 billion of that total. Imagine what your States could do with $7.5 billion dollars. You can find the costs to your home State in the handout. This cost is not an acceptable cost of doing business; these are preventable expenditures, if you improve the level of safety for children using your roadways.

I've been reciting a lot of statistics. But, this issue isn't about numbers and dollars, it's about real people, real children, and real futures. These are the faces of children killed in highway crashes - crashes that might have been prevented - had your States offered children the highest possible level of safety.

Six of the Southern Legislative Conference States ranked among the ten worst States in the nation in per capita highway fatalities for children ages 0 to 20 during the 1990s. For fatalities of children under age 5, six of the ten worst ranked States also belong to the SLC. For children under age five, the occupant fatality rate in the South has increased by 9 percent since 1982 while rates in the rest of the country declined!

The fatality rate for children, ages zero to four, was 44 percent higher in the South than in the rest of the nation between 1982 and 1998. Although there has been a decline in child fatalities across the nation, the decline in the South was not as great as the decline in other parts of the country.

Fatality rates for children ages 0 to 4 declined by 9 percent in Southern States, but by 35 percent in the rest of the country.

Similarly, the fatality rate for child vehicle occupants between the ages of five and nine was nearly 40 percent higher in your states than in the rest of the country (3.9 fatalities per 100,000 children in 1998). Since 1982, the average fatality rate for vehicle occupants in this age group in the southern States has been 35 percent higher than in other States. And, the fatality rate for children ages 5 to 9 in the SLC States decreased by 13 percent while the rate in other States decreased by 22 percent.

One encouraging statistic is that SLC States have reduced fatalities for 10-15-year-old children by 12 percent while the rest of the nation reduced these fatalities by only 3 percent. This means that fatality rates for this age group are now only slightly higher than the rest of the nation.

For young people between the ages of 16 and 20, Southern States reduced the fatality rate by 13 percent while the rest of the nation reduced the rate by 32 percent.

These statistics aren't meant to embarrass you, but I hope they shock you. More importantly, I hope that they motivate you to take the aggressive action needed to stop these needless deaths from occurring on your highways. State legislatures must act now on safety legislation that will save lives and provide the highest level of protection for our children. It only takes the will to act.

There are five actions that can be taken now to end the senseless loss of our most precious resource:

  • Strengthen your child occupant protection laws
  • Establish child safety seat fitting stations
  • Insist that children ride in the rear seat
  • Eliminate use of non-conforming buses, and,
  • Enact comprehensive graduated driver licensing laws.

ACTION 1. You as a legislative leader should strengthen child occupant protection laws now. We know that seatbelts, like air bags, are designed for adult use. Study after study, including a 1996 report by the NTSB, has shown that children should be in child restraints up to the age of 4; in booster seats to the age of 8; and should ride in the back seat up to the age of 13.

A recent study by Children's Hospital of Philadelphia found that young children in seat belts were more likely to suffer a significant injury, including head injuries, than were young children in an age-appropriate child restraint system. Researchers found that few children between 4 and 8 years of age were properly restrained for their age, because they were not in a booster seat.

Not one State has a child restraint law with all of the needed requirements. Nearly half the States, including 8 SLC States, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, do not require restraint use for a child in the back seat. Only 4 States nationwide - Louisiana, North Carolina, Delaware and Rhode Island - require children to ride in the back seat of vehicles that have air bags.

And, no State requires booster seats for children between 4 and 8 years old, although Washington State did enact a requirement for children under the age of 6 this year.

Every day we delay enacting comprehensive child occupant protection legislation, children are put at risk. In some cases, they die as a result of being ejected from adult seat belts fastened around them by well-meaning parents who believe they are providing adequate protection. Or, they suffer serious abdominal, spinal, and head injuries when they "submarine" or "jackknife" in seat belts designed for 170-pound adults.

ACTION 2. Legislative leadership is needed to establish statewide fitting stations. Permanent fitting stations where parents or caregivers can receive hands-on assistance in the proper use of child restraint systems by qualified personnel are needed.

Each State should have a statewide network of fitting stations. This is an opportunity for the SLC States to lead the nation.

Several manufacturers, DaimlerChrysler, GM, and Ford, have established programs in response to Safety Board recommendations. But, States shouldn't wait for automakers to take action. Parents need, want, and appreciate this help now.

Trained mechanics or certified technicians can do these inspections at automobile repair stations, firehouses, health centers, or wherever annual motor vehicle inspections are done. One such fitting station has been established at the police department in Paducah, Kentucky. Some States, including Hawaii, Idaho, and Indiana, have already established multiple permanent locations.

ACTION 3. Legislators should require children to ride in the back seat - the safest location in a vehicle. And, as cars with first generation air bags are resold to second and third owners, I am concerned that we may see more needless deaths because parents, unaware of the problems associated with these devices, follow existing State laws.

ACTION 4. Legislators should require schools to use vehicles for student transport that meet Federal school bus standards. If we are to have one level of safety for all children, whenever they are being transported, we also must provide for their protection when they're going to and from school and other activities.

Some school districts, daycare centers, Head Start facilities, and contract transportation companies are using vans, tour buses and other specialty buses for student transportation. These vehicles do not meet the Federal occupant protection standards that yellow school buses are required to meet. They do not have the same requirements for occupant protection, joint strength of body panels, and roof rollover protection that assure passengers a higher degree of safety than other vehicles.

Further, these vehicles do not have compartmentalized interiors - high-back, padded seats spaced comparatively close together, so that, during an accident, occupants have less room to move around the vehicle or to be ejected.

Children riding in these non-conforming vehicles are at greater risk of fatal or serious injury in the event of an accident. These vehicles need to be removed from school transportation service nationwide.

I was pleased that South Carolina enacted a measure this year to require any entity transporting students to or from school or school-related activities to transport the students in a bus meeting the Federal school bus safety standards. I hope that other States will follow South Carolina's leadership, and prohibit the use of these non-conforming buses.

ACTION 5. Legislators should enact comprehensive graduated driver licensing systems. Beginning drivers have a very high crash rate, and rates for 16-year-olds are especially cause for alarm. Young drivers, ages 15-20, comprise about 6.7 percent of all drivers nationwide, but 14 percent of highway fatalities. About 20 percent of their driving occur at night, but about 50 percent of their fatalities occur during the hours of darkness. Although traffic crashes account approximately 2 percent of all deaths, they account for 40 percent of all deaths among 15-20-year-olds.

We expect to see a 22 percent increase in young drivers nationwide by 2005. Without comprehensive graduated driver licensing laws that phase in the driving privilege for newly licensed young drivers, this increase in young drivers will lead to even more deaths on our highways.

The purpose of graduated driver licensing is to help young drivers learn to drive in the safest possible environment, to get ample driving time in supervised situations and to reward teens for driving safely. This law works and is saving lives in States where it has been enacted.

Graduated driver licensing core elements include:

  • 3-phase System of · a learner's permit,
  • a provisional license, · and then full licensure
  • A 6-month minimum holding period for the
  • Learner's Phase and · Provisional Phase
  • A Nighttime driving restriction
  • A Teenage passenger restriction, and
  • A Driving experience requirement

My home State of Tennessee enacted a graduated licensing law this year that can serve as a model for other States. It requires a mandatory six-month holding period for a learner's permit and a mandatory one-year holding period for an intermediate license.

Young drivers also have a nighttime driving restriction and are limited on the number of teens that can be in their car without an adult present.

Learners must have 50 hours of driving experience, including 10 hours at night, in order to obtain their intermediate license. To move to the next level or to get a full license, young drivers must have a clean driving record. As a result, only good driving habits are rewarded. West Virginia also enacted a strong law this year.

Six of the 22 States without comprehensive graduated driver licensing systems are in the South. It's time for Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Virginia to enact comprehensive laws.

Graduated licensing laws work. A new report by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center indicates that North Carolina's graduated licensing law is being credited with a 26 percent decline in crashes involving 16-year-olds and a 47 percent decline in late-night crashes for that same age group.

Some say that it's too difficult to enforce nighttime restrictions and passenger limits because it is often difficult to know the driver's age. Well, their age isn't what's critical to know. It's their level of experience and the type of license they hold - whether it's a learner's, provisional, or full license.

We would do well to follow Australia's lead by requiring young drivers to use front and rear 'L' or 'P' easily removable window decals when they drive. Authorities would then know the driver's license status and other drivers would know to be more aware of possible unexpected driving actions by young, inexperienced drivers.

The thing American families fear most is the loss of their children. We understandably react with horror at every random act of street violence that takes the life of an innocent child, and we demand action when a child is killed in one of our schools.

In 1997, 191 children under age 10 died in firearms-related actions. That same year, 1,784 children under age 10 died in highway crashes. That's nearly 8 times the number of child deaths related to firearms. This cannot be allowed to continue. We need to take aggressive action to end these needless deaths.

We need to foster a safety culture that puts highway safety at the top of the political agenda. We must have one level of safety, the highest possible level, for all children in every State. It's time that we all demand that something be done to end the loss of young lives on our roadways.

And, it's time for our leaders - at every level of government -to find the political will to do what is necessary to protect those lives.

There is a perception in other parts of the nation that the South is slow to change. Together, you can change that perception, and make our region the national leader in developing a culture for highway safety.

When it comes to protecting children, no one should be reluctant to do what's right. Make it a priority in your legislature. We at the Safety Board are prepared to help you in any way we can to make sure your residents are enjoying the benefits of the most effective highway safety initiatives we can develop. But the leadership must come from you, and it must come now.