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Remarks before the National Association for Pupil Transportation 24th Annual Conference & Trade Show, Austin, Texas
Jim Hall
National Association for Pupil Transportation 24th Annual Conference & Trade Show, Austin, Texas

Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be with you today so that I can talk to you about an issue of great importance to the National Transportation Safety Board, and one that I know is of great importance to you – the safety of our children on the highways.

Before I begin, let me introduce to you Safety Board employees who are in attendance: Joe Osterman, our director of Highway Safety, and Barbara Czech, a biomechanical engineer from our Fort Worth Highway Office.

I want you to know that I try to keep a broad perspective in my job as chairman of the NTSB. I’m also a traveler, a parent, and one of the 180 million licensed drivers who depend on and enjoy America’s highways.

Since 1994, I have had the privilege of heading an agency that strives to follow the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, who said:

    "The care of human life and happiness is the first and only legitimate object of good government."

That is what I want to talk to you about today: A way we can all work to promote the care of human life by focusing our efforts on the safety of our nation’s children.

There are many ways to approach the issue of protecting our children. Dorothy Parker, the American humorist, said that the best way to keep children home is to make the home atmosphere pleasant – and to let the air out of the tires. If only it were that simple. You and I both know that we have to approach this most important concern in a more practical manner.

But the task is a daunting one. The economic and human impact of highway crashes to our nation every year is phenomenal:

  • Motor vehicle crashes in the United States cost over $150 billion per year. That’s the equivalent of $580 for every person living in the U.S, or 2.2 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.
  • Each fatality resulted in lifetime economic costs to society of more than $830,000.
  • The average cost for each critically injured survivor of a highway crash is $706,000.
  • Lost market productivity from those involved in highway crashes totaled $42.4 billion in 1996.
  • Property damage in all crashes amounts to about $52 billion each year.
  • Roughly 9 percent of all motor vehicle crash costs are paid from public revenues. Motor vehicle crash costs funded through public revenues cost taxpayers $13.8 each year, the equivalent of $144 in added taxes for each household in the US.

The cost in lives is more tragic. Last year nearly 42,000 people died and more than 3.5 million were injured on our nation’s highways. More Americans died in motor vehicle crashes in the past 30 years than on all the battlefields our country has fought in the past 300 years.

Despite this heavy toll in people and dollars, highway safety professionals see the last three decades as a period of success because we’ve seen the rate of death on a per-miles basis drop significantly.

It is true that vehicles and highways are safer than they were in the 1960s, thanks to technical advancements, regulation, education and experience. But you can’t convince people like my friend Albert Ambrose that we have done everything we could to save lives. His daughter is dead as a result of a tragic traffic crash. No statistics we can cite will ever bring her back.

Thankfully, I haven’t had to face the horrors that Albert and his family -- and the well over 2,000 other families last year -- had to deal with after they lost a child under age 15 in a traffic crash.

There were 2,656 children under age 15 killed in crashes in 1997 -- an average of seven children killed and 908 injured every day! And what never ceases to amaze me – not just as NTSB chairman, but as a parent – 63 percent of those children killed in motor vehicles were unrestrained.

Seat belts in cars can cut the death and injury rate in half. So, if all of those fatally injured children had been restrained, more than 500 could be alive today.

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for children of every age from 6 to 14. Despite having mandatory child restraint laws in all 50 states, 35 percent of the children age 4 and under who were involved in fatal crashes last year were unrestrained. In the 5-to-9 age group, 46 percent were unrestrained. In the 15-to-20 age group, 57 percent were unrestrained.

In fact, in the past 10 years, more than 68,000 teenagers have died in traffic crashes, and well over half were not wearing their seat belts.

I am pleased that the President has set a goal of 85 percent seat belt use by the year 2000, because it is believed that the current use rate is just 69 percent.

It has taken this country 25 years to go from a seat belt usage rate of about 10 percent to where we are today. Western European countries, Canada and Australia have shown us that seat belt use rates in excess of 90 percent are possible.

I believe that we can’t afford to remain a second-rate country when it comes to taking such a basic step to protect ourselves and our children.

Child passenger safety remains one of our primary concerns at the NTSB, and we have adopted a comprehensive approach to this problem. In May, I participated in the kick-off of a week-long campaign called Operation ABC -- America Buckles up Children – an initiative directed at making sure that children across the nation are in car seats and seat belts. During that week, more than 4,000 police departments agreed to stop every car that had an unbuckled child to ensure that the child was placed in a car seat or seat belt.

As you may be aware, the NTSB is working to improve child passenger safety by recommending that vehicle manufacturers provide integrated restraint systems that are designed specifically for children. Moreover, we also want them to offer adjustable rear shoulder belt anchorages to accommodate children who have outgrown their booster seats, but who are not yet tall enough to fit into the adult shoulder belt. Further, the Safety Board has recommended significant improvements in educating children about seat belt safety.

But if we are to raise the overall seat belt use rate to 85 percent and get all children buckled up, it’s going to take an all-out effort by everyone concerned. In fact, it’s going to take the same kind of sustained effort that it has taken to improve school bus safety.

Throughout the years, the National Transportation Safety Board and the school bus industry have worked hand-in-hand to significantly improve the transportation safety of our nation’s children. Schools in our country currently have more than 51 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade and project that number will increase to 54 million by the year 2008.

As you know, each year, about 440,000 school buses travel about 4.3 billion miles in transporting 23.5 million children – about 50 percent of our school age children – to and from school and school-related activities.

While lap/shoulder belts have been proven effective at reducing deaths and injuries in cars. There are no data to assess their effectiveness in school buses because, as far as we know, in the United States no school buses are so equipped. We know that seat belts are one of the most effective pieces of safety equipment in motor vehicles. There is little we can do that would be more effective at saving lives than convincing people to wear their seat belts.

As we and others in the highway safety community work to get this message out, we are sometimes confronted by a seeming incongruity. While the federal government requires the installation of seat belts in every light vehicle and every heavy truck on our roads, it does not require seat belts on school buses.

One question our youth ask highway safety experts is: "If seat belts are so important, why doesn’t my school bus have them?" More and more parents are also mystified by this inconsistency.

We point out that school buses are the safest form of motor vehicle transportation on our roads – a fact that is due in no small part to your work as pupil transportation officials. Of the almost 42,000 people killed on our nation’s highways each year in highway crashes, only about 11 are pupils riding on school buses. That is the best transportation safety record in our nation.

But we struggle when we try to explain that more than 25 years ago occupant protection in school buses was addressed in a very different way than cars. Try to explain the concept of "compartmentalization" as I have, and your eyes glaze over.

We still investigate crashes where students are tragically thrown from the bus or tossed around in the bus and are killed or seriously injured. We need to know whether properly designed lap and shoulder belts for school buses could prevent ejections and serious injuries, infrequent as they are. And we have no answer for those fatalities that occur in rear, side and rollover crashes for which compartmentalization is less effective.

It is a fact that the Europeans and Australians are ahead of us in the design and installation of lap and shoulder seat belts for bus-type vehicles. Should we install lap/shoulder belts in the United States, we need to make sure that they are designed to protect different size children while also being able to accommodate child safety seats. Also, the Safety Board is very interested in exploring the possibility of installing built-in child restraint systems on school buses. Built-in restraints for children are a good idea in any form of transportation, whether it is automobiles, school buses or aircraft.

In 1987, the Safety Board completed a detailed analysis of 43 serious accidents involving large school buses. The Board reached several conclusions concerning seat belts, most notably that most school bus occupant fatalities and serious injuries were attributable to the occupants’ seating position being in direct line with the crash forces. We found that it was unlikely that the availability of any type of restraint would have improved their injury outcome.

This study is probably the most thorough real-world examination of large school bus crashworthiness to date, and since it was issued the study has been used to argue against the installation of seat belts on large school buses. However, the Safety Board has recently conducted investigations of crashes involving nine fatalities and 121 injuries that occurred while children were being transported to or from school or school-related activities.

These investigations have led us to re-examine the entire issue of school bus crashworthiness, and focus on the changes in traffic and vehicle size and weight that has occurred since the study was issued 11 years ago.

Many of the school bus accidents recently investigated by the Board have involved large, heavy trucks. This is happening at a time when trucks are bigger and more powerful than ever. In the mid 1960s, the typical highway semi-trailer was 35 feet long. Today’s standard trailers are 45 to 53 feet long. Triple combination unit trailers can extend over 90 feet. Trailers are a full foot wider now.

In addition, we now have twice as many tractor trailers operating on our highways as we did 40 years ago and that’s just the articulated trucks. At the same time, our automobile population has tripled.

As an example, in September, the Safety Board launched an investigation into a school bus-large truck collision in Holmdel, New Jersey. A 67,000-pound dump truck struck a large school bus at an intersection. The truck first crashed into the school bus’s left side by the driver’s window, and then again along the left side, with the buckboard of the dump truck penetrating the bus’ side wall. The most seriously injured child was seated away from the impact zone on the opposite side of the bus.

And we continue to see these accidents. In September, we began investigating an accident in Holyoke, Colorado involving a tractor semi-trailer striking the rear of a school bus, and just last week, near Frederick, Maryland, a loaded dump truck sideswiped a school bus. Each of these accidents is unique, and it is not clear that any single form of occupant protection would have been effective in all of them.

Truck safety is a focus area for the NTSB, and just last month I addressed the American Trucking Associations regarding their need to focus more on safety. Although truck safety may be cataloged separately from school bus safety, it is clearly not separate, especially when trucks are more likely nowadays to be travelling on secondary roadways, those most often used by school buses.

Our recent investigations have shown a pattern of student passenger injury away from the impact zone. Many of the recent accidents have also resulted in death or serious injury to students from ejection. These injury mechanisms may challenge the findings from our 1987 study.

In August, as a result of this new information and as part of our study, the Safety Board held a public hearing in Las Vegas to explore what can be done to protect occupants in bus crashes, including bus standards and restraints used in other countries, types of possible restraints, and other types of injury-reducing mechanisms.

Although the Safety Board staff is continuing to review the information gathered during the public hearing, several factors stand out from the testimony. First, although there have been various laboratory studies, tests and opinions about the potential injuries to adolescent students that could be caused by lap belts in large school bus crashes, there are no significant real world examples.

Likewise, although the same opinions about the detrimental effects of lap belts are applied to motor coaches, there have been no real world examples of this in the European fleet of motor coaches equipped with lap belts. Those experts who testified at the hearing universally believed that lap/shoulder belts were far superior to lap belts in bus applications.

Additionally, many of those who testified indicated that in certain situations, compartmentalization may not be enough to ensure containment of the child passenger. This factor is certainly apparent in our recent investigations.

At the public hearing, and in reaction to our study, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration presented its new proposal for crash testing and evaluating large school bus performance. The Safety Board applauds this effort by NHTSA and will work closely with the NHTSA staff to develop meaningful results. However, improvement in child occupant protection clearly involves more than just biomechanics.

But at least we’ll be getting some long overdue data. The last time large school buses were crash tested was in Canada in 1985. It is distressing to note that the United States last conducted crash tests in 1976.

In the spring, the Safety Board will issue its final report on bus crashworthiness. This report will include those bus-related accidents currently being investigated and the information we have developed regarding protecting our pupil passengers.

Also, the Board will consider other highway system issues as they relate to pupil transportation safety. There may be alternative bus crashworthiness improvements available through Intelligent Transportation Systems, redesign, or operational changes. I am convinced, though, that to further improve pupil transportation safety, solutions must consider an expanded perspective of the all the factors that influence the safety of our children.

While the Board next Spring will make a determination of how to best to address these restraint issues -- and I would not want to appear to predetermine what their action will be -- based on what I've heard so far, I personally think it’s our turn now to step up to the plate on the issue of lap/shoulder belts in school buses. We already require seat belts on small school buses. We have to stop being indecisive on this issue. Let’s commit to doing it, but let’s do it right.

We should be concerned about the mixed message we’re sending to parents and children. Seat belts on school buses won’t prevent 500 deaths or serious injuries a year. But it seems logical to parents, I’m sure, that since we will be conditioning children to buckle up every time they ride in any motor vehicle, a thousand deaths or serious injuries could be prevented in cars, pickups, minivans and sport-utility vehicle crashes.

There are many grassroots organizations calling for seat belts on our school buses. And there are a few state and local governments requiring them. It is time for the school pupil transportation network of this country to call on the manufacturers and regulators to make this happen, rather than waiting for it to happen..

We have to make sure this is done on the basis of solid science. We don’t want to simply bolt in lap belts in every seating position. Lap belts are probably not the most effective form of restraint for the millions of students transported on school buses. We need well-designed systems, even better than those on the roads in Europe and Australia. There are prototype systems here in the United States.

The consistent focus of safety in the pupil transportation industry over the years has led to a safety success record unmatched by other transportation modes, and we all should be extremely proud of this achievement.

However, the nature of our nation’s roadways and highway vehicles is constantly changing, and we must continue to explore new methods of protecting our children. As laudable as your safety accomplishments are, I urge you not to relax and ask you today to broaden your vision and your mission.

The bounds of school bus safety issues do not stop at the loading door, they affect our students’ perceptions and are impacted by the changing nature of the operating environment.

The death of one child, is one too many. As a nation, we have failed to put our children first when it comes to highway safety. We need your continued leadership because you are in a unique position to effect necessary changes, and because this death rate of our children on our highways is unacceptable. Together, we can change it.

Let’s work together to find the best solutions to these problems and then make sure they are translated into action. To do less would be unworthy of the trust the American people have placed in us.

Thank you for inviting me.


Jim Hall's Speeches