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Remarks before the Washington Automotive Press Association, Washington, DC
Jim Hall
Washington Automotive Press Association, Washington, DC

Good afternoon.  Thank you, Mitch, for your kind introduction.  Thank you for inviting me here today to speak to the Washington Automotive Press Association.  I always appreciate the opportunity to speak to the members of the fourth estate - especially those who report on the state of our nation's transportation system.  It is through your efforts that the American taxpayers not only learn about the latest automotive enhancements, they learn about the most recent safety improvements as well - or, more importantly, the lack of them.

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the absence of your president emeritus, John Lynker, who I understand is recovering from a very serious heart problem.  I know that you all join me in wishing him a speedy recovery.

I also want to introduce the Safety Board staff who are here with me today:  Barry Sweedler and Elaine Weinstein of our Office of Safety Recommendations and Accomplishments, Vern Roberts from our Office of Highway Safety, Phil Frame, from our Office of Public Affairs and a former WAPA first vice president; and Jamie Pericola, from my staff.

As the Board's Chairman, one of my responsibilities over the past five and a half years 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.  They all tell me the same thing - how frustrated they are at how difficult it is for them to ensure the safety of their children when travelling by automobile.  About 15 months ago, I focused much of the Board's resources on two issues: child transportation safety and heavy vehicle safety.

That's what brings me here today, I want to talk about how we can improve automobile safety and how we can keep our most precious passengers, our children, safe when they're traveling on our nation's roadways.  Let me give you just a few statistics:

  • In the last decade, more than 400,000 people died on our highways and over 32 million were injured.
  • The economic cost of those accidents was a trillion and a half dollars.
  • Highway deaths are the number one killer of children in our nation.
  • Between 1990 and 1998, over 82,000 children under the age of 20 died in motor vehicle crashes.
  • Over 15,000 of those children were under the age of 10 - that's 33 children under the age of 10 dying every week on our highways.
  • During that same time, over 52,000 teens between 15 and 20 died in traffic crashes - more than 110 each week.
  • And, in 1997 alone, almost 9,000 people died in crashes involving young drivers.
We, as a nation, seem to accept this unreasonably high toll of automobile crashes as the price for our mobility.  We tend to focus on the luxury and speed of our automobiles, the ruggedness of our sport utility vehicles, and the economic benefits that the automobile industry provides the U.S rather than how the design of those vehicles fail to provide adequate protection for the children riding in them.

Next Monday, I will be speaking to a group of highway safety leaders at the annual Lifesavers Conference in Atlanta about the state of child passenger safety in America.  I can tell you, ladies and gentlemen, what I plan to tell them - as parents, as caregivers, as government officials, as automakers, as car dealers, and as reporters, we have failed our children and it's time to do the right thing and fix what we've broken.

Our children are the innocent victims of the highway safety culture we have created and perpetuated.  As former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said, "There are not many places that children go that adults have not made dangerous for them."  Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for our children.  Over 1,100 children under age 10 will probably die in motor vehicle crashes this year.  Of those children, 40 percent will not be buckled up.

Unfortunately, even if the parents do buckle in their children, thinking that they're protecting them - the vast majority of those parents will be wrong.  But, in most cases, they won't know it until they're in an accident - and then it's too late.  Eight out of 10 children are in child safety seats that aren't properly secured - putting them at risk of injury or death.  The Safety Board estimates that 10 million children are in misused safety seats and not getting the protection that their parents think they are providing - even though 96 percent of those parents think otherwise according to a recent survey conducted by DaimlerChrysler and the National Safety Council.

In addition, most children are placed in restraint systems that are too advanced for their size.  The Safety Board's 1996 study on child passenger safety found that most four- to eight-year-olds are in seat belts designed for adults - rather than in booster seats specifically designed to improve seatbelt fit for this group of children.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that only six percent of these children are in a booster seat.   And, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just issued a report indicating that these youngsters are falling through a loophole in the laws that govern child safety seats.  And, as a result, almost 500 of them are dying every year.  NHTSA has introduced a new education campaign "Boost'em before you Buckle'em" that focuses much needed attention on this issue.

But, placing children in child restraints or booster seats is only part of the solution.  Although some progress has been made over the years to enhance traffic safety through vehicle design, there has been little attention paid to designing vehicles so that they protect the children riding in them.

It's time to change the safety culture on our highways.  Everyone needs to know - and understand - that safety is their responsibility.  And, they need to know what's being done, what's not being done that can be done, and what they can do to make their roadways safer for them and their children.  You, as members of the media, can be a powerful voice in helping change that culture by what you choose to cover and how you choose to cover it.
Today, I want to focus on just one part of the transportation community and what they can do - must do - to improve the safety of our children.  Let me give you just a few examples of what automobile manufacturers can do today to change the safety culture on our highways.

  • Establish fitting stations in every community in America.
Last year, the Safety Board recommended that the automobile industry, child restraint manufacturers, the states, and NHTSA support the establishment of permanent child safety seat fitting stations.  These stations are fixed locations where parents and caregivers can go for car seat check-ups to ensure that they are:
  • Using the correct safety seat for the size of their child;
  • Installing the seat properly;
  • Securing their child into the seat correctly; and
  • Getting reliable information about safety seat and vehicle compatibility.
Both DaimlerChrysler and General Motors have responded to our recommendations with impressive programs.  By the end of 2000, there'll be 1,000 DaimlerChrysler dealerships providing free child safety seat inspections, nationwide, by appointment, to the owners of any vehicle.  Last January, General Motors donated 51 Chevy Venture minivans to the National Safe Kids Campaign that will be used as mobile fitting stations in every state and the District of Columbia.   They will also inspect any vehicle make or model.

During National Child Passenger Safety Week last month, of the 891 safety seats inspected in the Washington, D.C. area, only 37 were properly installed.  That's a 96 percent misuse rate.  But, as a result of that activity, 891 children are safer today.
One of your fellow journalists recently told my staff about her own frustrating experience of trying to install a child safety seat.  Cathy Strong, of the Associated Press, isn't here today because her first baby is due this week.  She and her husband tried to install safety seats in their vehicles.  Even after reading the vehicle and safety seat owners' manuals, they still couldn't install the seats securely.  Finally, they gave up and made an appointment at a local DaimlerChrysler dealer to have the seats installed in - although neither of their vehicles were DaimlerChrysler products.  As a result, Cathy's new baby will come home in a properly secured safety seat.  And, the new parents will have one less concern.
Not every parent is as familiar as Cathy is with the problems that can be encountered just trying to install a child seat - or with the tragic consequences of not getting it right.

This past January, a young mother was driving in Maryland, with her seven-month-old son in the back seat in a forward-facing child safety seat. As she made a left turn, she collided with a schoolbus traveling in the opposite direction.  The car spun around, striking two other vehicles.  The little boy was ejected from the car and was killed. The mother survived with moderate injuries.

Although the mother thought she had done everything possible to protect her child, our investigators learned that the child safety seat was installed in the car correctly, but the child had not been properly secured in the seat.  The shoulder straps were improperly positioned, the wrong latch position was used, and the shoulder strap clip was too low.  Consequently, a little boy died in a car crash that was survivable.

That mother and every other parent deserve to have somewhere to go so that they can be sure that they are protecting their children and they deserve to know where and how to get the help they need.  I want to again publicly thank DaimlerChrysler and General Motors for being responsible members of their communities.  Unfortunately, the response from other automobile manufacturers to our request for fitting stations has been disappointing.  I'm hopeful that they'll commit to this program in the near future.  I'll discuss this issue in more detail next Monday at the Lifesavers' Conference in Atlanta.
The second thing that manufacturers can do to help change the safety culture on our highways is:

  • Put children first when designing new vehicles.
The Safety Board believes that the back seat of vehicles should be designed with children in mind.  We have made numerous recommendations to the automobile manufacturers to design child-friendly back seats by having center lap/shoulder belts in the rear seats of new vehicles, lap/shoulder belts in the rear outboard seating positions that fit older children, and built-in child safety seats.

The Safety Board first asked manufacturers to consider installing center lap/shoulder belts in all newly manufactured passenger vehicles following a 1986 safety study on the performance of lap belts in frontal crashes. Although I'm pleased that more vehicles have lap and shoulder belts in the center rear seat position, I'm concerned that few minivans or sport utility vehicles - today's family car - have lap/shoulder belts available for children in all back seat positions.
Safety advocates have told parents that the safest place for their children is the center position in the back seat because it's the farthest away from a side or frontal crash.  Parents have been listening.  NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System, or FARS, data shows that 42 percent of all back seat occupants seated in the center position are under the age of 13 and 78 percent of them are under the age of 21. It seems obvious to me that restraints in the center seat position should provide the same level of safety as those in the outboard seat positions.  Last April, I challenged manufacturers and their designers to put children first by designing lap/shoulder belts for all seating positions in all vehicles.
The Board has also recommended that lap/shoulder belts in the rear outboard seating positions should fit older children comfortably and securely.  Manufacturers have argued that the adjustable upper shoulder belt anchorages, now standard in the front seat, aren't feasible in the back seat because the back seat's design renders the anchorage ineffective.  If that's true, it's time for manufacturers to put their design teams to work looking for alternative solutions - such as a shoulder belt adjustment that can be used in the back seat for small-statured adults and for children who have outgrown their booster seats.
Lastly, the Board believes that vehicles need to have built-in child safety seats.  Although a few manufacturers offer a built-in safety seat, it is almost solely an optional equipment item, and often isn't marketed very well.
Many auto manufacturers have suggested that built-in child seats are a tough sell; that many people who have children young enough to use them aren't in the market for a new car; and that car dealers don't want to stock vehicles with integrated seats.  A little ingenuity and creativity on the part of manufacturers could solve the problem.  Dealerships should be able to keep a small supply of built-in seats available for consumers who want them.  And, since the rear seats of most minivans can be easily removed, a small supply of seats with built-in child restraints could be made available as replacements as well.  Finally, incentives could be provided to dealerships and salespeople for every integrated safety seat they sell.

This is by no means a comprehensive list.  But it is a start.  As I mentioned earlier, I'll report on the state of child passenger safety in America next week in Atlanta.  I'll once again be asking the automobile and child restraint manufacturers, the insurance industry, and other corporations that support child health and safety to establish fitting stations and design automobiles for children.  In addition, I'll also ask them to:

  • voluntarily unite in a coordinated education campaign about the need to get child safety seats inspected;
  • support a single toll-free number where parents can get information on fitting station locations; and
  • make other changes that will improve the safety of our children on our nation's highways.
By changing the safety culture on our roadways, we can reverse the trend of motor vehicle crashes being the leading cause of death of children under the age of 10 and make our highways and every driver and passenger on them safer.  But, we can only accomplish that goal if everyone does their part - the government, the industry, parents, and, yes, the media.

Thank you for inviting me to be here today.