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"The State of Child Passenger Safety in American", Remarks at the Lifesavers 2000 Conference, Atlanta, Georgia
Jim Hall
"The State of Child Passenger Safety in American" at the Lifesavers 2000 Conference, Atlanta, Georgia

Good morning. Thank you, Yvonne, for your kind introduction. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to this dedicated group of highway safety advocates. I'm also honored to be here with Mayor Campbell, Secretary Slater, and Dr. Thacker.

Before I begin, let me introduce the Safety Board staff who are here with me today.

  • Elaine Weinstein, Steve Blackistone, and Jeff Marcus from our Office of Safety Recommendations and Accomplishments;
  • Phil Frame from our Public Affairs Office;
  • Nicholas Worrell from my office; and
  • Bill Walker, Ken Suydam, and Jim LeBerte, who are highway investigators from our Atlanta regional office.
  • Barbara Czech, from our Office of Highway Safety, was here yesterday to talk about our recent report on Bus Crashworthiness.

The Lifesavers' Conference has always provided a unique opportunity to bring together leaders in highway safety from across the country to share experiences and to learn about what can be done to save more lives on our highways. The importance of this conference and the significance of the information that is shared here are indicated by the number of people in the audience and the fact that attendance at this conference increases year after year.

More importantly, its success can be measured by the reduction in the number of people killed in crashes involving drunk drivers and by the increased use of child and adult restraints over the past 18 years. Please join me in thanking the conference organizers; many of whom I understand have been involved in planning the Lifesavers Conference every year it has been in existence. Thank you for all of your efforts to help make all of us safer.

But, we all know - that despite the successes realized so far - more needs to be done. That's why we're all here at this meeting.

I want to spend my time with you discussing what needs to be done - what must be done - to better protect our children when they travel on our nation's highways. I want to talk about the state of child passenger safety in America. The statistics, unfortunately, tell the story.

  • Highway deaths are the number one killer of children in our nation.
  • Between 1990 and 1998, over 81,000 children under the age of 20 died in motor vehicle crashes.
  • Over 15,000 of those children were under the age of 10 - meaning that 33 children under the age of 10 died every week in motor vehicle crashes.
  • During that same time, over 52,000 teens between 16 and 20 died in traffic crashes - about 111 each week.
  • And, over eight million children were injured.

We have seen an increase in the number of children who are buckled up, but we have not reduced the percentage of children ejected in fatal crashes over the last 17 years. In fact, the percentage has increased for children between the ages of 10 and 15.

Although 1998 saw the fewest number of unrestrained children killed in fatal crashes in the 17-year period of the Board's review of child passenger crash data, over 40 percent of children under age 10 and almost two-thirds of children ages 10 to 15 who were killed in passenger vehicle crashes were unrestrained.

Thanks to the diligence and hard work of many of you to pass child passenger protection laws and to educate the public about the need to buckle up children, the number of children under the age of five killed in passenger vehicle crashes in 1998 declined by eight percent from the number killed in 1982. However, during that same time, the number of children between five and nine killed in crashes increased by 23 percent and for children ten to fifteen, it increased by 13 percent.

We cannot continue to tolerate the loss of so many Americans, especially our youngest citizens. It's time to change the safety culture on our nation's highways. The blasé attitude of "it won't happen to me" can't continue - because it can happen to every one of us. The government, industry, and society's attitude of "it's not our job" must end - because it's our children.

As former Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop said "There are not many places that children go that adults have not made dangerous for them." With the Surgeon General's warning in mind, today, I want to talk about four things that can be done now to better protect our children.

· First, we need to strengthen and enforce the state laws requiring children to be buckled up and in the back seat.

    In six states, a two-year-old can be legally restrained by a seatbelt - although we know that seatbelts, like air bags, are designed for use by adults. Almost half of our states do not require restraint use for a child in the back seat.

No state requires booster seats for children between the ages of four and eight, although Washington State is on the verge of enacting such a law for children under six or 60 pounds. The Safety Board's 1996 study on child passenger safety found that these children were typically in seatbelts or unbuckled, rather than in booster seats specifically designed to improve seatbelt fit for this group of children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just issued a report indicating that these youngsters are falling through a loophole in the state laws that govern child safety seats - the statistics I mentioned a moment ago would seem to confirm that assessment. As a result, almost 500 of them are dying every year. I want to congratulate the Department of Transportation, Secretary Slater, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for their new education campaign "Boost'em before you Buckle'em" to be sure that we get our four- to eight-year-olds buckled up in age-appropriate restraint systems.

    Only three states (Rhode Island, Delaware, and North Carolina) require that children sit in the back seat even though the back seat is safer than the front seat for children in most crashes.

    We all know that, to be safe, children should be in child restraints up to the age of four; in booster seats to the age of eight; and in the back seat. However, not one state currently has a comprehensive child passenger protection law with all of these requirements. It is time the states strengthen their laws and enforce them. There must be zero tolerance for unbuckled children and the laws should require the use of age-appropriate restraint systems.

· Second, we need more fitting stations to reduce the widespread misuse of child safety seats.

    It is hard to believe that, for two decades, we as a nation have permitted a situation to exist in which eight out of 10 children who are buckled up in safety seats are improperly secured. At last year's National Safe Kids Leadership conference, I called upon the automobile industry, child restraint manufacturers, the states, and NHTSA, to support the establishment of child safety seat fitting stations where parents and caregivers could 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 properly; and
  • Getting correct information about safety seat and vehicle compatibility.

Here we are, a year later, and fitting stations are fast becoming a reality in this country. DaimlerChrysler, along with General Motors, two of the world's largest automobile manufacturers, have committed time, money, and personnel to make fitting stations available to the public.

DaimlerChrysler's Fit for A Kid program offers free car seat inspections to anyone, regardless of the kind of vehicle they drive, who makes an appointment at one of their dealerships with certified technicians. General Motors recently provided 51 fully equipped Chevy Venture minivans to the National Safe Kids Campaign so every state and the District of Columbia will have a mobile fitting station. This is terrific news for the children of America and a viable first step in changing the safety culture on our highways.

But General Motors and DaimlerChrysler, even with the help of the many dedicated volunteers across the country who conduct periodic inspection clinics in their communities, cannot provide service for everyone who needs or wants it. According to Safety Board estimates, about 10 million children are riding around in misused safety seats. That's just too many children and parents across the country in need of this life-saving assistance.

There's no doubt that parents want and need this assistance. I've been told that in Sandy, Utah, during a safety seat check-up event, parents waited in line for up to three hours to get their seats inspected, the certified technicians worked for four to five hours without a break, and despite all that, 30 people had to be turned away and told they needed to call for an appointment.

Would those of you who are certified trainers please stand up? I want to thank you, and I know everyone here joins me, for giving so freely of your time to save children's lives. The service you're providing is essential to the well being of our children. Let me give you just one example. During National Child Passenger Safety Week last month, 891 safety seats were inspected in the Washington, D.C area; only 37 were properly installed. That's a 96 percent misuse rate. But, more importantly, 891 parents, in just one community, in just one week, sought and got much needed help in protecting their children. As a result, 891 children in the nation's capital are safer.

Much more needs to be done to address this problem. It's time for other manufacturers to accept their responsibility for protecting their customers and fellow citizens.

Ford Motor Company Chairman, William Clay Ford, Jr. said in a recent interview with Automotive News that "creating socially responsible corporations that help to make a better world is the auto industry's most important job in the 21st century." What could be more socially responsible or more important than saving children's lives? Ford informed informed me yesterday that they will be announcing an exciting program in this area soon.

The response from the other manufacturers has been even more disappointing. A few, including BMW, Honda, Nissan, and Saab, are still deciding what their level of involvement will be. Others, like Toyota and Volkswagen, have indicated that they will encourage their dealers to establish fitting stations, but they have not committed to provide training, publicity or other support for those dealers. Some, including Volvo, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Suzuki, Isuzu, and Kia have simply refused to establish fitting stations. I'm hopeful that these manufacturers will do the right thing and make the same commitment that DaimlerChrysler and General Motors have been willing to make to save children's lives.

· Third, those corporate entities or individuals willing to provide this life-saving service must be protected from liability.

There are other members of the transportation community that should be willing, vocal, and visible proponents of child safety seat fitting - the child safety seat manufacturers and the insurance industry. That's not to say that some of the manufacturers haven't gotten involved. Fisher-Price is supporting fitting stations through their involvement with the Fit for a Kid program. And, Evenflo is providing safety seats to the National Safe Kids coalitions to distribute.

We all know that we're living in a litigious society and, as a result, liability concerns may deter some groups from establishing or supporting fitting stations. Trained and certified technicians should not be afraid to conduct safety seat inspections because they're concerned about liability. The insurance industry can help - by providing liability insurance at reasonable rates to advocacy organizations and corporate entities that agree to provide this necessary service. I can tell you that I'll do everything I can to encourage the insurance industry to support these efforts by providing reasonable insurance coverage.

· Fourth, we need more efforts to educate parents and caregivers on the need for properly secured child restraints.

    We need to close the knowledge gap between parents' perception of the problem and the reality of the problem. We need to make sure they understand that most child restraints are improperly installed; that they must be regularly inspected; and that failing to have them checked puts their child at unnecessary risk.

    There is already a model for such a program - a proven, successful one - the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign. In that instance, the auto, insurance and occupant restraint industry joined together to effectively solve a problem. We need the same kind of partnership to tackle this endeavor as well. So, today I am asking 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 explain and reinforce the reasons for getting child safety seats inspected.

    Parents need to know where they can find a fitting station location near them. DaimlerChrysler and the National Safety Council have been operating a toll-free number as part of the Fit for a Kid program. Callers are referred to local dealerships based upon their zip codes. If there aren't any dealers close by, the caller is referred to the state child safety seat coordinator for information on other resources that might be available. We need to expand this program. I hope that the auto, insurance, and occupant restraint industries will also work together to develop and support a centralized toll-free number so that all parents can easily and quickly find out about all of the inspection programs available to them.

If we want to reduce the number of deaths and injuries to children as a result of motor vehicle crashes, our agenda is clear. There must be:

  • Zero tolerance for unbuckled children;
  • Comprehensive child passenger safety laws and strong enforcement of those laws;
  • More fitting stations;
  • Affordable liability insurance for those dedicated to saving children's lives; and
  • A coordinated, nationwide, education campaign to make getting child safety seats inspected a routine part of caring for a child.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of what must be done to make our children safer on our highways. This week, you'll be discussing other issues that need to be addressed by the states and the automotive industry, such as graduated licensing for teenagers and improved school bus protection.

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's time to put children first.

Thank you, again, for inviting me to be here today. And, thank you for putting children first and working so diligently to protect them.