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Remarks before the Advisory Council on Traffic Safety, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Jim Hall
Advisory Council on Traffic Safety, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to be with you here in Chattanooga. I always appreciate the opportunity to come home to be among friends. I want to thank Harold Coker, Hamilton County Commissioner, and members of the Advisory Council on Traffic Safety for inviting me to be here today to talk about transportation safety issues of importance to us all.

As many of you may know, the National Transportation Safety Board has been the eyes and ears of the American people at accident sites for over three decades. Congress believed, when it established the Board, that an independent investigative agency was needed to investigate accidents in all modes of transportation, and to make recommendations that would improve the safety of the transportation system and prevent similar accidents from recurring.

Most associate the Board - and me - with aviation safety - primarily because major aviation accidents receive a lot of attention - from the public and the media. As a result of that attention, and the public's demand for the government and the industry to take the aggressive action necessary to ensure their safety - aviation accidents are rare events and we have the safest air transport system in the world.

The same is not true on our highways - the one transport system that each of us uses every day. Highway crashes currently account for more than 40,000 deaths annually in the United States. Here in Tennessee, more than 1,200 people die on our roadways every year. New York, with nearly three times the population, had nearly the same number of fatalities. In fact, Tennessee's fatality rate was 22.8 per 100,000, while New York's was 9.1. During the period of 1997 to 1999, 420 of our family members, friends and neighbors in Hamilton and the 11 surrounding counties were killed in motor vehicle crashes.

Even more tragically, far too many of our nation's young people are being killed needlessly on our highways every year - resulting in devastating losses for the families of those killed and for the nation as a whole.

  • More than 90,000 children, infants to teenagers, were killed in the 1990s 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.

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 20 years of age, causing roughly one-third of all fatalities in this age group. Even though this age group makes up only seven percent of the driving population, they are involved in 14 percent of all traffic fatalities.

Based on population projections, we expect to see a 22 percent increase in the number of young drivers by 2005, these numbers will continue to increase unless we intervene - now.

Not a day goes by that I don't learn of yet another senseless accident and the loss of more of our youngest citizens.

  • Last month, a southbound Ford Explorer, with four teenagers inside, lost control on a wet four-lane divided highway near Atlanta. It crossed over the road median and entered the northbound traffic lanes, where it was struck by a northbound van. The SUV then rolled on top of another northbound vehicle before finally coming to rest. All four teens were killed; two of them weren't wearing their seatbelts and were ejected from the vehicle. The vehicle's driver had only had his license for less than three months.
  • Earlier this month, I read about one such accident here in Chattanooga. The accident occurred about 1:00 a.m., on a very curvy section of Hickson Pike Road. The 22-year-old driver was operating a 2000 Nissan Maxima, modified for performance, and traveling at approximately 75 miles per hour in an urban area. The driver lost control, the car left the roadway, overturned on its side, and struck a tree. The driver and the front seat passenger were ejected. The three passengers in the rear seat, ranging in age from 19 to 23, were pinned in by the tree. None of the five were wearing seat belts. The four passengers were fatally injured and the driver is still in critical condition.
  • And, last week, while I was visiting Wichita, the front page of the local newspaper reported on a single car accident that killed one 14-year-old and injured four other teens. The police were still investigating the accident, but it appears that none of the teens were wearing their seatbelts when the 16-year-old driver apparently lost control of the car and it overturned.

Yet, despite this continuing carnage on our highways - we - the American people aren't yet demanding the same kind of proactive action by our local, state, and federal governments and the industry to make traveling on our highways as safe as traveling in our skies. As a result, government officials and industry leaders aren't willing to make the hard decisions necessary to improve the safety of our highways.

Two years ago, I wrote Chattanooga's mayor and members of the City Council, congratulating them on their leadership role in considering primary enforcement of mandatory safety belt use laws. Unfortunately, the measure wasn't enacted because there wasn't enough public support.

It's time that we change the safety culture on our highways - so that it rivals the safety culture we've established for our skies. Our leaders - at all levels of government - and in the boardrooms of our major automobile manufacturers - need to know that Americans want and support measures that will improve safety for themselves and their children when they're traveling on the nation's roadways.

That's what I want to talk to you about today - what you can do to help change the safety culture on our roads and, by doing so, improve the safety of your children and your fellow citizens. In my six years at the Board, I have made highway safety my number one priority - and have spent much of my time encouraging others in leadership positions in the government and industry - to do the same. Over the years, I have focused the Board's assets on improving child passenger safety, promoting occupant protection, and enhancing teen driving laws, including adoption of graduated driver licensing and age 21 and zero tolerance laws. Much has been accomplished - but much more needs to be done if we are to truly alter our nation's highway safety culture.

  • We need to enact state laws that will improve the safety of our children and stop these needless and irreplaceable losses.

The thing American families fear most is the loss of one of their children - and rightfully so. As a parent myself, I cannot conceive of such an experience, yet every year thousands of parents have to endure this unspeakable loss, most because of preventable highway crashes.

In six states, a 2-year-old can be legally restrained by a seatbelt - although we know that seatbelts, like air bags, are designed for use by adults. Safety advocates know that children should be in child restraints up to the age of 4; in booster seats to the age of 8; and in the back seat. However, not one of the 50 states has a child restraint law with all of these requirements in it. Nearly half the states do not require restraint use for a child in the back seat. Only three states require children to ride in the back seat of vehicles that have air bags. And, no states require booster seats for children between 4 and 8 years old.

The safety of children should be the first priority of any society. Everyone should have zero tolerance for unbuckled children, and it is the states' and industry's responsibility to assist parents in assuring that they are using child safety restraints correctly. And, every citizen should demand that they fulfill that responsibility.

For as long as there have been child safety seats, parents and caregivers have had to ask two questions each time they buckle their child into the car: did I buckle the child restraint into the car properly and is my child properly buckled into the restraint system?

They would be able to answer those questions if there was a fitting station available to them. These stations allow parents to go, at their convenience, to have a safety seat properly installed and to find out if they are using the right restraint for their child's size. In Australia, which has had fitting stations for more than 15 years, misuse rates are as low as 16 percent in surveys where parents report that they have been to a fitting station. As you know, the misuse rate in this country exceeds 85 percent.

Eighteen 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.

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. 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.

Three 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 four 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 last month 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. 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.

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. For example, Volvo has an innovative design where a booster seat is built into the car. But, that is not enough. Back seats must also have restraints designed specifically to fit children in all seat positions.

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.

I recently 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. Trained mechanics or certified technicians can do these inspections at automobile repair stations, firehouses, health centers, or wherever annual motor vehicle inspections are done. To date, only 12 states have reported to us on their plans to provide this service. I hope to hear from the others soon.

The challenge of increasing restraint use isn't limited to children. We must find a way to increase restraint use by minorities. As our society becomes more diverse, the "one size fits all" approach will no longer work and we must find new ways of getting our programs and messages across. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater recently said "... the violence of crashes is color blind. All of us, our children and families, are affected by car crashes." He's right. African American and Hispanic male teens have the highest death rates per vehicle mile traveled. According to a report by Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, African American youth are 50 percent less likely to be buckled than whites or Hispanics. It also observed that 100 percent seat belt use by African Americans could save as many as 1,300 lives per year and prevent 26,000 injuries at a savings of nearly $2.6 billion.

  • States should act now to adopt a comprehensive graduated licensing bill.

Despite efforts by many states to enact graduated licensing laws, we still have a serious, but preventable, young driver crash problem. Without comprehensive graduated driver licensing laws in every state, the increase in young drivers will lead to even more deaths on our highways.

This year, Tennessee enacted a graduated licensing law that can serve as a model for other states. The law requires a mandatory six-month holding period for a learner's permit and a mandatory one-year holding period for an intermediate license. While driving with each of these permits, 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. I want to thank Representative Joe Fowlkes and Senator Steve Cohen for their courage and persistence in proposing and promoting this life-saving legislation for Tennesseans. 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.

The purpose of the law 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.

Some detractors 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.

  • State action against drunk driving must be stepped up now.

Any driver who drinks and drives puts you, your family, your friends, and your neighbors at risk. All states need to enforce zero alcohol tolerance laws for young drivers and take other steps that we all know are effective. Some states, such as North Carolina and Tennessee, have found that tougher legislation and a combination of highly visible enforcement measures, such as sobriety checkpoints, have proven extremely effective in reducing alcohol-related crashes.

We also need to concentrate more of our efforts on repeat and high BAC alcohol offenders. NHTSA estimates that about one-third of drivers arrested for impaired driving are repeat offenders. I commend the states that have taken action to deal with high BAC drivers and impose vehicle sanctions for those who continue to drink and drive. It's time we got serious about DWI offenders and those who drive on suspended licenses. Those who flaunt our laws and imperil innocent citizens should be separated from their vehicles. It's time for Tennessee to take similar action. Just this month, the Safety Board issued a special report on the hardcore drinking driver problem and made additional recommendations to the states and the Department of Transportation.

  • The states should improve truck and bus safety.

In 1999, 5,203 people were killed and another 127,000 were injured in crashes involving large trucks. All of us must work to reduce both the crash rate and the number of people who die from the mismatch of vehicle size on our congested highways.

To address this issue, the Safety Board held a series of four hearings on truck and bus safety last year. The first, a three-day hearing focusing on oversight issues, was held in April. Testimony given at the hearing reinforced our concerns that neither the government nor the truck and bus industries have a focused safety agenda. The second hearing was held in Nashville and addressed how technology applications can be used to improve heavy vehicle safety. The third and fourth hearings addressed truck safety issues related to NAFTA and review the commercial driver's license (CDL) process and driver operations in general. We are in the process of preparing a number of reports on these issues and will undoubtedly be issuing additional recommendations that will help reduce truck crashes.

We also already know that we need substantially better oversight and enforcement activities of motor carriers and drivers. Currently, the Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety (OMCHS) doesn't have an effective program to remove the worst motor carriers from our roads. In addition, the current CDL system hinders everyone's ability to identify deficient drivers of heavy vehicles because it often doesn't necessarily reflect all of a driver's convictions and other safety information, such as drug test results.

And we already know that technology can help make trucks safer. Federal and state governments should find ways to ensure that the more than 225,000 new trucks added to our highways next year will have on-board recorders, collision avoidance systems, electronic braking systems, and other intelligent transportation systems -- all of which can help prevent crashes on your state roads and save lives.

It is also in the interest of trucking companies to do so. Those companies that have employed the new technologies have enjoyed tremendous success - crashes are down, people are safer and profits are up. One example is USExpress, which has seen a 75 percent decrease in rear-end collisions in its fleet since the installation of collision avoidance systems in their trucks.

  • Other steps that need to be taken by the states now.

I do not have time in these remarks to address the many other important measures that should taken by the states today that can save the lives of their citizens. These include measures in highway and bridge design, grade crossings, aggressive driving, construction zones, school bus safety and intelligence transportation systems in automobiles.

We assume that every state values the safety of their children as highly as we do. Yet, when we look at state laws, it is clear that many states discount that value. They fail to provide the full measure of protection within their capability. All of you, your children, and your fellow citizens deserve to be protected by the latest technology in truck and bus safety, by the benefits provided by graduated licensing and from the dangers presented by persistent drunk drivers. You all deserve the benefits of an enhanced safety culture on our highways.

I believe that Tennessee legislators, politicians, and law enforcement officials need to work together on all of these initiatives - only then will we have a safety culture on our roads that equals that of our. 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. It's time that we have one level of safety that ensures that the laws in every state are equally comprehensive and cover children of all ages.

Thank you again, for inviting me to join you today in my hometown to talk about our mutual interest in highway safety. I hope each of you will join me in making highway safety your number one priority and urge you local, state, and federal officials to take action on these most important highway safety initiatives.

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