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NTSB Forum on Child Passenger Safety in the Air and in Automobiles - Chairman's Opening and Closing remarks, Washington, DC
Deborah A. P. Hersman
National Transportation Safety Board, Forum on Child Passenger Safety in the Air and in Automobiles, Washington, DC

Good Morning and welcome to our Boardroom. I am Debbie Hersman, and it is my privilege to serve as Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Joining me are my fellow Board members, Vice Chairman Chris Hart, Member Robert Sumwalt, Member Mark Rosekind and Member Earl Weener. This morning we convene a forum on Child Passenger Safety in the Air and in Automobiles. This kicks off a year-long effort at the Safety Board to promote child safety across all modes of transportation.

Before we begin, I'd like to recognize the accident survivors and family members who might be watching via webcast. Many of you, like Jan Brown who is in the audience, have been directly involved in accidents where children were killed or injured. You have been some of the strongest advocates for improved transportation safety for our youngest passengers, and we are grateful for your continuous support.

Also in our audience is Mr. Martin Sperber, who, for many years, has been a leading advocate for the use of child restraints in Europe. Mr. Sperber attended our forum on child restraints in aviation in 1999, and we welcome him back.

As many of you know, the Safety Board investigates the causes of major transportation accidents and issues recommendations to make travel safer. But we also examine safety issues by bringing together leading experts to identify safety risks and solve problems even when they are not tied to a specific accident.

We gather at a time when our roads and skies are safer for all travelers, including our smallest passengers.

Thirty-five years ago, when I was a child, nearly 1,400 children age 12 and younger died as car occupants. Last year, as my children are growing up, that number had fallen to 750 children – a decrease of nearly 50% in a generation.

These gains have been achieved in large part because individuals and organizations around the nation – including some represented here today – worked diligently to change the culture of child passenger safety. And the culture around child protection has changed. We can all recall an environment that looked very different.

I remember riding in my family's station wagon a generation ago where my little sister's favorite spot was the arm rest in the front seat. She was not secured by a car seat or even a safety belt, but she could see better from her perch. Today, parents install their first car seat before their child is born, and children often are the ones reminding the adults to buckle up; they have never known any other way to ride in a car.

These anecdotal examples of the cultural shift in highway safety are reflected in several concrete policy changes as well. For example:

  • Every state has a law that requires children under age 4 to be transported in child safety seats.
  • Pediatricians and nurses in maternity wards across the country counsel parents and caregivers about the importance of child seats.
  • Community organizations distribute free or low cost child seats during seat checks at fire stations and baby superstores.
  • And education campaigns are successfully reaching most parents and caregivers.

Yet, even with this progress, vehicle crashes are still the number one cause of death for children in the U.S. Of the 750 children killed in car crashes last year, more than 40% were not using a child seat or seatbelt, so many of these deaths were preventable. We can – and must – do better for our children.

The Safety Board has long advocated for child safety in automobiles. The Board has issued more than 20 highway recommendations addressing child passenger safety, and 12 of those recommendations have been on our Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.

The Board has seen the benefits of child safety seats in its accident investigations as recently as last March, when a 15-passenger van was hit by a tractor trailer in Munfordville, Kentucky. Although the van experienced very severe crash forces with significant intrusion into the passenger compartment, the only two survivors were children in safety seats, who sustained only minor injuries.

Our work is not limited to highway safety. The Safety Board has issued 14 recommendations on child safety in aviation. Among them is a recommendation for the FAA to require restraint use for all occupants of airplanes, including infants and small children.

While the FAA's official guidance notes that a child younger than age 2 is safer in a restraint system than on an adult's lap, this information, unfortunately, is only a suggestion and not a requirement.

And yet, we see it regularly when we travel: parents putting their children in child seats on the drive to the airport, checking the car seat as luggage, and then holding the child on their lap during the flight, even when everyone else on the plane is buckled in. Once at their destination, that child is once again secured in the car seat for the car ride from the airport.

The laws of physics don't change, whether you're on an airplane or in an automobile. And we know that no parent would intentionally place their child in a less-safe position than they place themselves. If we are so careful to strap our children into car seats when we drive to the airport, then why are we not as diligent in securing them in a seat of their own on the aircraft? How many times have we seen the car seats on the baggage carousel?

Our recommendations to the FAA regarding restraint use date back to the 1970s. However, our purpose today is not to engage in a statistical stalemate about diversion. Rather, we are here to inform and educate those who travel with children about the safest way to transport their most precious cargo. Children can not make decisions themselves, so they are relying on adults to know what is best and do what is right.

To bring about a cultural shift in how we look at child safety, we must remain consistent in our attitudes regarding the use of safety equipment – whether we are flying in a 737 or driving on the interstate. A main focus of our forum is closing that education gap, so that securing our children in proper restraints is what we do each and every time.

As part of that education, we have displays and exhibits showing DOT-approved devices and how to properly restrain a child, and I encourage you to visit them during the breaks. Thank you to the organizations and companies who are here with us today.

We will hear from experts on 4 panels today: this morning we will focus on the safety of children in aviation and this afternoon, we transition to child passenger safety on our highways; and then conclude the forum with a look at positive steps moving forward.

Now, a few reminders before we begin:

  • Safety is our priority. In case of an emergency, please note the nearest emergency exit – there are three exits from the boardroom: the rear doors that you used to enter the conference center; and two emergency doors on either side of the rostrum in front.
  • If you have not already done so, please silence your electronic devices.
  • The boardroom is Wi-Fi equipped, so if you have a laptop, you can connect to the internet through our Verizon connection.
  • Today's agenda and the speakers' biographical information are available in the atrium and are also posted on the NTSB's website.
  • Within the next several days, presentations provided by our speakers will be available on our website. A video archive of the forum can also be accessed through our website for the next several months.
  • And, those of you attending in person may earn CEUs (Continuing Education Units) for your National Child Passenger Safety Certification by attending the Forum. The signup sheets are in the atrium.

At this point, I'd like to turn your attention to the monitors as we debut a video on the importance of appropriate restraint use for children.