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Testimony before the Subcommittee on Transportation, Committee on Appropriations, United States Senate, regarding highway safety
Marion C. Blakey
United States Senate, Subcommittee on Transportation, Committee on Appropriations, regarding highway safety, Washington, DC

Good morning Madam Chairman and Members of the Committee. It is a pleasure to represent the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) before you today on the subject of highway safety.

This is my first appearance before the committee and I welcome the opportunity to talk about the Board's work in highway safety. As you would imagine, sometimes our investigations and research into making our roads safer do not receive the prominent attention that aviation safety receives. And yet, 90% of all transportation related fatalities occur on our nations roadways. Therefore, highway safety will always be one of our highest priorities as we fulfill our mission to make recommendations to improve safety, reduce accidents and injuries and, most importantly, save lives.

The more we learn and understand about highway safety, the more it becomes clear that young adults and children are especially at risk each time they travel in a motor vehicle. Simply stated, our children are our "most precious cargo" and also our most vulnerable.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), in the 1990s, over 90,000 children died in motor vehicle crashes, and over 9 million were injured. Of the children who died, 8,600 were between the ages of 4 and 8. That equates to about 16 children between the ages of 4 and 8 being killed each week in motor vehicle crashes. In 1999, more than 70 percent of the children between the ages of 4 and 8 killed in automobile accidents were totally unrestrained, and 13 percent were in lap/shoulder belt restraint systems designed for adults.

These chilling numbers should be a call to action for all of us. At the Safety Board, we have a "Most Wanted" program that highlights safety recommendations the Board believes should be acted on as soon as possible because they have the most potential to reduce accidents and save lives. The list contains several highway issues that focus on our young people. Before discussing on-going concerns, it should be noted that as a result of Board safety recommendations, many improvements in highway transportation for our young people have been made. For instance:

  • Airbags are being de-powered in new vehicles and in some instances an airbag on/off switch has been provided to prevent serious injury and death;
  • A nation-wide campaign was initiated to educate parents about the importance of putting children in the back seats of vehicles with air bags;
  • Child safety seat fitting stations are available nationwide to assist parents and caregivers in properly installing child safety seats; and
  • Shoulder belt anchor locations have been lowered in some vehicles to better fit older children who no longer need a child safety or booster seat.

While this is a start, there remains much more to do.

An issue that needs additional attention, and one that is on the Board's "Most Wanted" list, involves the use of booster seats by children between ages 4 and 8. Too many parents buckle their children into adult restraints believing that their child is safe. We know this is not the case. Booster seats need to be recognized by the public as the next step in child passenger protection after a child outgrows a child restraint system.

Vehicle seat belts, like air bags, were designed to protect adults, not our smallest passengers. According to the Centers for Disease Control Prevention, children who have outgrown their child safety seats should ride in a booster seat that positions the shoulder belt across the chest, and with the lap belt low across the upper thighs. Without a booster seat, a child can slouch and slide forward, causing the vehicle lap belt to ride up on to the child's abdomen, resulting in serious or fatal injuries.

Unfortunately, only eight states - Washington, California, Arkansas, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee - have enacted some form of booster seat law. The Safety Board believes that children of all ages need to be properly restrained and should be covered by the states' child restraint and seatbelt use laws.

With respect to the States and industry's efforts to address child passenger safety, we look to NHTSA to continue to move forward on some of our critical recommendations. I would like to cite these recommendations that will require NHTSA support:

  • An increase of booster seat standards from a maximum of 50 pounds to a maximum of 80 pounds. This increase is being considered under an upgrade to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213. Until this change occurs, many states have been hesitant to upgrade their child restraint laws.
  • NHTSA published a notice of proposed rulemaking in August of 1999 to amend NHTSA's consumer information regulations and requests information on the use of warning labels rather than establishing a minimum performance standard for seat belt positioners. The Safety Board views the changes to the agency's consumer information regulations as an interim approach that would not be an acceptable alternative to the intent of the Board's recommendation that performance standards be established for seat belt adjusters. The Board believes a performance standard is necessary in order to prevent degradation in performance of seat belts when seat belt adjusters are used.
  • Finally, NHTSA has issued a final rule enabling all vehicle manufacturers to install and test lap/shoulder belts at the center rear position without the need for duplicate testing. Although NHTSA's study on the effectiveness of lap/shoulder belts in the back seat did not examine the effectiveness of center rear lap/shoulder belts because of the limited number of vehicles equipped with center rear lap/shoulder belts, the Safety Board continues to believe their installation should be required because of the added protection they afford to anyone seated in the center rear position.

Madam Chairman, another area of Board concern is the disproportionate number of highway crashes that involve teenage drivers between the ages of 15 to 20, young people who have only recently obtained their license to drive.

Young drivers age 15 to 20 years comprise about 6.7 percent of the driving population, but are involved in 14 percent of the highway fatalities. Like other States cross the country, your State of Washington, Madam Chairman, has seen a disproportionate number of fatal crashes involving drivers between the ages of 15 and 20. They were involved in 25 percent of the highway deaths in 2000 that occurred in Washington. Traffic crashes account for 40 percent of all deaths among 15 to 20 year olds, making traffic crashes the leading cause of death for this age group. Further, population trends indicate that the problem is likely to worsen as the teen population increases.

Graduated licensing, also an issue on the Board's "Most Wanted" list, was first recommended to the States by the Safety Board in 1993, and is an important step that will reduce needless deaths and injuries on our highways and help thousands of young drivers to adjust to their new driving responsibilities. The current system does not teach young people to drive; it teaches them to pass a test. Learning to drive is a long-term process, one that cannot be effectively managed through the traditional driver education program. Once the mechanics are learned, additional training must be "on the job," without necessary distractions, and with the assistance of a more mature and experienced driver. As their skills and maturity develop, new drivers can then proceed to full licensure.

Beginning drivers should be introduced gradually to the driving experience. They should be provided the maximum time to practice, under the safest possible real-world conditions. For our young drivers to have the chance to develop, we need to create a support system that involves parents and guardians.

Graduated licensing is effective, and provides the opportunity to save the needless loss of many of our younger citizens. Currently there are five states without any form of graduated licensing and 14 other states only have partial systems. We need to encourage and support these states in their efforts to strengthen their graduated licensing laws.

An issue that affects not only our young people but all drivers is the need for standard enforcement of mandatory safety belt use laws. Standard enforcement means that law enforcement officers may issue a citation any time they observe an unbelted driver or passenger. The current secondary enforcement law allows an officer to issue a citation only if the officer has stopped the vehicle for some other reason.

Increasing the safety belt use rate is a valuable measure for protecting children and is the most effective way of cutting the highway death toll. Adults who do not buckle up also do not buckle up their children. A study of crash data by Ford Motor Company found that when the driver is wearing a safety belt, 94 percent of the children in the vehicle are buckled. However, when adults are not wearing a safety belt, the portion of children restrained is only 30 percent. A national survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found similar results.

Seatbelts are an important part of the safety equipment that is in every vehicle on our nation's roads. And I wish to acknowledge your commitment and efforts, Madam Chairman, to increase seat belt usage in your state. At nearly 83% seat belt usage, Washington has one of the highest rates in the country. But as you realize, Madam Chairman, we cannot be satisfied until each driver and passenger buckles up. Primary enforcement of seat belt usage is one of the most effective ways to increase seat belt usage in a state. Just as it is illegal to drive without headlights during darkness, so also should the States require that seatbelts be used by all occupants of all motor vehicles.

Another issue that has been of concern to the Board for many years is the dangers of drinking and driving. Although public attitudes toward drinking and driving have changed significantly since the early 1990s, we recently saw a rise in the number of alcohol-involved fatalities. Hard-core drinking drivers, those drivers who repeatedly drink and drive and those who drive with high amounts of alcohol, over 0.15 percent blood alcohol concentration in their systems, cause a substantial number of the alcohol-related fatalities.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, from 1983 through 1998, at least 137,338 people died in crashes that involved hard core drinking drivers. NHTSA's data also indicate that 99,812 people were injured in fatal crashes involving hard core drinking drivers during that same period.

In 2000, the Safety Board issued a report regarding actions to reduce fatalities, injuries, and crashes involving the hard core drinking driver. The report outlined a model program that included sobriety checkpoints, administrative revocation of driver's licenses, adoption of an aggravated DWI offense, use of vehicle sanctions, alternatives to jail and use of jail/treatment combinations and recommended that the States establish such a program. The Board also recommended that the Department of Transportation evaluate modifications to the provisions of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century so that it can be more effective in assisting the States to reduce the hard core drinking driver problems.

We believe the adoption of our recommendations will go a long way to reducing the incidence of alcohol-related crashes, injuries, and fatalities caused by hardcore drinking drivers. School bus transportation is the safest means to transport students to and from school. In a special NTSB investigation report on the use of 15-passenger vans for school transportation issued in June 1999, it was determined that state laws regarding student transportation do not provide uniform safety, and we expressed concern at the trend toward using nonconforming vehicles rather than school buses in pupil transportation. A nonconforming bus, such as a 15-passenger van, is a vehicle used for student transportation that meets the Federal definition of a bus but not the Federal occupant crash protection standards of school buses. This type of vehicle is frequently used to transport college sport teams, commuters, and church groups. When States allow children to be transported in vehicles not meeting Federal school bus construction standards, they undermine the Federal government's intent of protecting school children. This trend is potentially serious because it puts children at greater risk of fatal or serious injury in the event of an accident.

As a result of the Board's special investigation, the NTSB recommended to the states that all vehicles carrying more than 10 passengers and transporting children to and from school and school-related activities meet the school bus structural standards or the equivalent. We are encouraged that many of the states have responded favorably to our recommendation.
In April 2001, NHTSA concluded that 15-passenger vans are more likely to roll over when fully loaded with occupants than when lightly loaded. NHTSA issued an advisory warning to users of 15-passenger vans urging that experienced drivers operate the vans and that occupants use restraint systems to improve occupant protection.

Through on-going investigations, we have also become concerned that large vans have a propensity to roll over. Therefore, the NTSB is, therefore, conducting a safety study to determine other vehicle, driver, or highway characteristics related to large van accidents and the likelihood of rollover.

Madam Chairman, before closing I would like to discuss an issue that is the subject of recent Safety Board recommendations, commercial truck and bus drivers who do not have proper medical certification to operate their vehicles.

Medical certification, which qualifies an individual as being fit to drive a commercial vehicle, became a Federal requirement under the Motor Carrier Act of 1935. The qualifications have been modified and expanded three times since then, with the most recent major modification occurring in 1970.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has medical oversight over approximately 400,000 interstate carriers and 9 million commercial drivers. FMCSA oversight of the biennial medical certification process is accomplished almost exclusively by three full-time individuals. State oversight of the medical certification process for interstate drivers is not mandated by Federal regulations, and the decision to certify a driver as fit to drive typically rests with the individual examiner performing the physical examination on the driver.

On May 9, 1999, in New Orleans, Louisiana, a motorcoach accident killed 22 passengers. Despite suffering from potentially incapacitating medical conditions, the driver involved in the accident was able to obtain a medical certificate by falsifying and omitting crucial health history information from the examination form. The examiner was able to determine that the driver had heart disease, and possibly kidney disease, but she believed that the Federal regulations did not preclude the driver from obtaining a medical certificate.

Serious flaws exist in the medical certification process for commercial drivers. The ease in which the current medical certification procedures can be bypassed virtually assures that some unfit drivers will find their way behind the wheel of a commercial vehicle, endangering themselves and the motoring public. As a result of the Board's investigation of the New Orleans accident, the Safety Board recommended that the FMCSA and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators develop a comprehensive medical certification program for both interstate and intrastate truck drivers. Implementation of these recommendations can help to make our highways safer.

Madam Chairman, that completes my testimony and I will be happy to respond to questions.