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Remarks before the 2000 International Child Passenger Safety Technical Conference, Arlington, Texas
Jim Hall
International Child Passenger Safety Technical Conference, Arlington, Texas

Thank you, Steve, for that kind introduction. Good morning everyone, it is a pleasure for me to be here today to talk about child passenger safety.

I am sorry that I was not able to join you last year, but a death in my family forced me to cancel my appearance. I regretted missing the opportunity to thank all of you for your years of dedicated service to the welfare of our children, so let me take this opportunity now to commend you for making traveling safer for our most vulnerable citizens.

As the Board's Chairman for the last six years, one of my responsibilities has been 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 protect themselves and their families when they travel and to ensure that no other family ever has to endure a similar tragedy. Many of my conversations are with parents who lost children in traffic accidents, one of whom, Autumn Skeen, is on your program this afternoon. They all tell me the same thing - how frustrated they are at the difficulty to ensure the safety of their family when traveling by automobile.

That is why last year I made child passenger safety my top priority at the Safety Board and although it has been on the Safety Board's list of Most Wanted Safety Improvements since 1994, the Board this year made it the number one issue on the NTSB's Most Wanted list.

There is no mystery associated with our interest; the statistics tell the story.

  • More than 90,000 children, infants to teenagers, were killed in the 1990's in motor vehicle crashes and over 9 million children were injured.
  • Over 16,500 children under age 10 died in motor vehicle crashes, on average, 33 children each week;
  • Over 57,500 children between ages 15 to 20 died in traffic crashes; more that 110 each week;
  • Six out of ten children who died were not buckled up; and
  • The vast majority of children under age 8 who are buckled up, are improperly restrained.

This morning, I want to report on the Safety Board's efforts to put children first since we launched our initiative in January 1999.

Seventeen months ago, the Safety Board issued recommendations that asked the Federal and State governments and the automobile and child restraint manufacturers to establish permanent fitting stations to help address the continuing extensive problems of child safety seat misuse that we have endured in this country for too many years. Year after year observational surveys and safety seat clinics have shown that 80 percent or more of child safety seats are not properly installed in the car or the child is not properly secured in the seat.

DaimlerChrysler answered our call within six months with a nationwide program of permanent fitting stations at their dealerships that I believe set the standard for the rest of the automobile industry. Currently, over 500 dealerships offer this service and by the end of the year 1,000 dealerships will be part of the program. The automaker currently has almost 900 certified technicians enlisted in the project and expects to have 2,000 by the end of the year.

Last week, I was pleased to recognize DaimlerChrysler's leadership on this issue by presenting the company with the NTSB's outstanding achievement award. There was an additional side benefit. Instead of hearing another heart-breaking story from a parent who had lost a child in a crash, I was heartened to meet with a mother and her little daughter who was saved by a booster seat that had only the week before been properly fitted into her vehicle by a DaimlerChrysler dealership.

Other companies are also joining the effort. This past January, General Motors responded to our recommendation with a program to establish mobile fitting stations in every state in partnership with the National Safe Kids Campaign. To kick off the program, GM presented Safe Kids with 50 brightly decorated minivans that are being used right now to bring child safety seat inspections to communities in every state. One is in the exhibit area here. The success of the GM/Safe Kids effort is in the impressive numbers of safety seat inspections that have taken place in just the first three months since the minivans went on the road.

Two months ago, I joined the National Council of La Raza, General Motors, the United Auto Workers, and National Safe Kids to focus attention on the need to increase child restraint use by minorities. As we all know, highway tragedies do not discriminate. Children of whites, Asians, Latinos, African-Americans, and Native Americans are all equally vulnerable. However, statistically, highway fatalities are more prevalent among Latino and African-American children.

  • African-American children under the age of four have the highest highway death rate, followed by Latino children.
  • Among children aged 5 to 12, occupant death rates for African-Americans were almost three times those of whites. Latinos had a death rate 60 percent higher than whites. And,
  • Latino teens have the highest occupant death rate among all 13- to 19-year-olds.

Also, just 3 months ago, Ford announced its Boost America program that will provide support for existing community fitting stations and implement a campaign to give away booster seats. Ford will help train additional technicians and promote existing local programs.

And, in May, BMW announced its program, the Ultimate Child Safety Seat Clinic. BMW will have certified instructors travel to over 200 of its dealerships and conduct one-day safety seat inspections in conjunction with fund-raising events that BMW sponsors for the Susan G. Komen Foundation for Breast Cancer. This is a six-month effort by BMW that I hope will be expanded and become permanent.

I am extremely pleased that these manufacturers have recognized their responsibility for ensuring the safety of the children transported in their vehicles. They are to be congratulated. I am also pleased to say that Volkswagen advised the Safety Board on Friday that they were actually looking into ways they could be responsive to our recommendations.

I am disappointed, however, that the Japanese manufacturers - despite Nissan's child safety educational effort - have shown little interest in establishing these very necessary fitting station programs. How long can Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi or the others let their customers go to DaimlerChrysler, GM, Ford or BMW to have their safety seats inspected?

According to Safety Board estimates, about 10 million children are riding around in misused safety seats and need the services of fitting stations. Obviously, no one program can do it all. We need everyone's help and everyone working together. It is time to focus on what is really important-our children's safety. I urge you to work together, share information, and support each other's programs. By helping one another, you make every program better and the children of America safer.

We need to increase the use of and demand for fitting stations by parents and caregivers. We need an awareness campaign to educate parents and caregivers about the need to have their safety seats inspected not just once, but regularly as their children grow and their safety seats need adjustment. We need to close the knowledge gap between parents' perception that they are doing it right and our knowledge that 80 percent of them are doing it wrong.

There needs to be a partnership between the automobile and child restraint manufacturers, the insurance industry, and other corporations that support child health and safety issues to voluntarily unite in a coordinated education campaign that will publicize the reasons for getting child safety seats inspected. And, we need to make it easier for parents and caregivers to find a fitting station location near them, such as a centralized toll-free number, that allows all parents to easily and quickly find out about all of the inspection programs available to them. We also need to improve the design of child safety seats. Last June, the Safety Board hosted a meeting with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the child restraint manufacturers, physicians, and safety advocates to discuss how to simplify the design of child safety seats. There seemed to be some consensus among the participants that harness system designs need to be simplified to help minimize misuse.

Another issue discussed at the meeting was the influence of retailers in selecting what restraints to market and the need for retail buyers to understand the safety implications of the various car seat designs. NHTSA now has an effort underway to include the National Retail Federation in meetings and discussion on child restraint issues.

Also as an equal part of the Board's child and youth initiative, in April 1999, I called upon the automobile manufacturers to design cars for kids with the goal of making the back seat more child-friendly. I asked them to have their design and engineering teams consider what they can do to put children first when designing vehicles in the future. For example, the Board has called for:

  • center lap/shoulder belts in the back seats to permit use of belt-positioning booster seats in the safer middle seat position,
  • adjustable upper anchorages on rear seat shoulder belts for better fit once children have outgrown their booster seats, and
  • built-in child safety seats that eliminate compatibility problems.

At recent auto shows, the automobile industry has been highlighting new entertainment packages being offered that encourage children to ride in the back seat. But, that is not enough. Back seats must also have restraints designed specifically to fit children in all seat positions. For example, Volvo has an innovative design where a booster seat is built into the car.

Certainly we need look no further than the first generation air bag to understand the consequences of not designing cars for kids. 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. Now, we need to focus our efforts on ensuring that families purchasing used cars with these first generation air bags are aware that their small children cannot sit in the front seat.

Just as I have asked the manufacturers to do more, I have also asked the states to do more to protect their youngest residents. Last September, I paid a visit to Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, who is the Chairman of the National Governors' Association, to ask him to make highway safety, and especially child passenger safety, a priority for the association. In March, I had a similar discussion with Georgia Governor Roy Barnes. I am still waiting for their response.

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a state-run fitting station in Hawaii. This was a rewarding experience for me, especially to see this service provided to low-income families. Only three states have told us that they offer this service - Hawaii, Idaho and Indiana. More states need to take a leadership role in this issue, as we urged in our recommendation last year.

Improving the state of child passenger safety requires that we change the safety culture on our highways. It's time to take motor vehicle crashes off the list as the leading cause of children's deaths in the U.S. It is time to put children first. We also should strive for one level of safety so that the laws in every State are equally comprehensive and cover children of all ages in all seat positions.

For example, can you believe that the Texas legislature permits the transport of a two-year-old child secured only by a seat belt designed for a 170-pound adult? The kids of Texas should be put first and should be first in every state in our country.

Another area we are taking action on involves liability insurance for certified technicians. These technicians, who have dedicated themselves to saving children's lives by conducting safety seat inspections should be able to purchase liability insurance at a reasonable price. We all know that we are living in a litigious society and, as a result, liability concerns may deter some individuals or organizations from establishing or supporting fitting stations. Trained and certified technicians should not be afraid to conduct safety seat inspections because they are concerned about liability.

Three weeks ago the Safety Board discussed this issue with AAA and I am pleased to say that AAA is looking into the possibility of providing affordable liability insurance coverage to all certified technicians.

It has not been easy but I think, with your help, these last 17 months have begun to change the safety culture for children in America. And this speech doesn't address progress that we've made on:

  1. 1) School bus safety;
  2. 2) Child safety seats on aircraft;
  3. 3) Graduated licensing;
  4. 4) Non-conforming school buses; and
  5. 5) Personal flotation devices.

Through the continued efforts of everyone at this conference to put children first, we are working to ensure that motor vehicle crashes will no longer be the number one cause of children's deaths in the United States.

Thank you again for inviting me to be here today. I am looking forward to the panel discussions ahead. And, in closing, let me again thank you for working so diligently to protect our most precious citizens and our nation's future.