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Remarks on 30th Anniversary Of Child Passenger Protection Laws, Washington, DC
Deborah A. P. Hersman
30th Anniversary Of Child Passenger Protection Laws, Washington, DC

Thank you for inviting me here today.  I am very pleased to be participating in this important event.

30 years ago, an event took place in Tennessee that would forever change the way children in the United States travel in cars.  It didn’t happen overnight, but today it is the norm to put your baby, your toddler, and your 2nd grader, in a child safety seat or booster seat every time you travel in the car with them.

30 years ago, many parents thought the safest way to take the baby home from the hospital was in their arms.  It wasn’t unusual to see toddlers standing on the front seat completely unrestrained or riding on an adults’ lap.  I’m willing to bet that most of us in this room can recall examples of our own unsafe behavior.  As kids, my sisters and I used to love lying in the back of the station wagon.  And I vividly recall my little sister sitting between my parents on the armrest of the front seat of our car during family trips.  No one in our station wagon thought this behavior was unwise or unsafe.

30 years ago child safety seat usage rates nationally were about 15 percent.  Cars were not designed to easily accept the installation of child safety seats, so even where safety seats were used, many were actually misused. 

30 years ago, NHTSA didn’t have a Federal standard for infant car seats.  It was buyer beware.  Dashboards in cars were hard and unforgiving with protruding knobs that could seriously injure an unrestrained child.

30 years ago there were no safety seat inspection clinics and very few education programs.  Car seat loan or give away programs simply didn’t exist.   If you couldn’t afford to purchase a safety seat, your child didn’t have one.  Hospitals did not routinely teach parents how to use car seats or why to use them.  New moms were taught how to feed the baby and bathe the baby, but not how to travel in the car with the baby, even just to go home from the hospital.

A lot of change has taken place in just a single generation.  So what happened 30 years ago to precipitate all of this change?  As you have heard, one pediatrician with a lot of foresight, Dr. Robert Sanders from Tennessee worked tirelessly to get the first child restraint law enacted in 1978.  In the following 7 years, all 50 states and the District of Columbia enacted mandatory child safety seat use laws.  Societal attitudes about the best way to transport children began to change.

Dr. Sanders’ success in changing the law in Tennessee is a notable marker in the progress toward improved child safety in transportation. But Dr. Sanders was not alone in this important endeavor.  As early as 1966, a group called Physicians for Automotive Safety, led by Dr. Seymour Charles, was pushing for the development of crashworthy child restraints and was providing to physicians’ offices educational information about why parents should place their young children in car seats.

In 1971, concerned mothers like Deborah Stewart founded a grassroots organization called Action for Child Transportation Safety to advocate child safety in cars and on school buses.  ACTS began producing a newsletter, Safe Ride News, which many of us still read today and Deborah Stewart remains its editor. 

Following the enactment of the Tennessee law, in 1979, NHTSA conducted 10 regional workshops for grassroots organizations.  The participants were provided current resources so that they could promote child passenger safety within their states and improve the effectiveness of their efforts.  I am accompanied today by Ms. Elaine Weinstein, who, as a NHTSA employee in 1979, helped conduct and lead those workshops. NHTSA followed-up the regional workshops later that year when then-Administrator Joan Claybrook hosted the National Conference on Child Passenger Safety to raise public awareness about child restraint use.

Congress gave the cause a boost when the House Committee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing on child restraint systems in May 1979, chaired by Congressman Bob Eckhardt from Texas.  A future Vice President, Al Gore, was there to question the witnesses. 

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released an award-winning video that graphically showed what happens to a child held in a mother’s arms in a head-on collision.  Those dramatic images provided a wake-up call for a lot of people about the importance of child restraint systems.

Every one of these efforts was a stepping-stone to a widespread fundamental shift in thinking about how to safely transport our children. 

In 1979, 93 percent of young children were riding completely unprotected.  Today that statistic is reversed with over 90 percent of young children riding protected. 

Today, it is routine for parents to learn about child safety seat use in childbirth education classes. 

Today, parents typically have a car seat before the baby is even born.  Children progress through multiple car seats as they grow from an infant seat to a convertible car seat to a booster seat to a safety belt.

Today, 38 states and the District of Columbia have laws that include mandatory booster seat use for older children.

Today, the majority of children ride in the back seat of the car, a safer place to be in a head-on collision, the most common type of crash.

Today, every state has car seat inspection clinics where trained professionals help parents to properly install their child safety seats.

Today, cars are designed with the safety of child passengers in mind.

Today, programs like Safe Kids Buckle Up and SeatCheck provide new car seats to needy children, not to mention instructions to hundreds of thousands of parents about how to properly install a child safety seat.

Everyone played a part in the change: car seat manufacturers, automobile manufacturers, and organizations like AAA.  Their efforts spawned other efforts, like the annual Lifesavers Conference and the Partners for Child Passenger Safety research project at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, sponsored by State Farm.

So, today, 30 years after the first child passenger protection law was passed, we can see some amazing results:  98 percent of infants, 89 percent of toddlers, and 78 percent of children 4-7 years old are buckled up when they get in a car.

We all know there is still work to be done to get booster seat laws in all 50 states.  Those of us who work to improve safety should ask, “What is next?  What can we do today to save kids 5, 10, 20 or 30 years from now?”  Like the pioneers who left us a legacy of safety for our children, we will demonstrate courage and commitment as we continue the push for improved safety for the next generation of child passengers.