Washington - The federal government's chief drumbeater for transportation safety says car companies are not doing enough to protect children in vehicles.
Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, called on automakers to help 'change the safety culture on our highways.'
At a minimum, he said, they should take the following steps:
Set up child safety seat-fitting stations in every community
Guarantee every parent can readily buy a vehicle with built-in-safety seats
Alter vehicle designs to increase protection for children.
Hall said all vehicles should have shoulder harnesses in every seating position, and rear out-board seats should have height adjustable harness straps, like those in most front seats, he said.
Hall outlined the steps in a speech to Washington automotive reporters last week and was scheduled to expand on the theme in a speech at a national safety conference in Atlanta today, March 13.
Hall said if the automakers don't take the steps voluntarily, then the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should consider new regulations to improve protection for children.
'We certainly have a lot of regulations on the design of vehicles for adults. What's wrong with regulations on the safety of children?' he asked.
MORE SAFETY FEATURES
The tongue-lashing comes at a peculiar time in automotive safety history. Car companies, reacting to consumer demand, have been racing one another to add safety features - so much so that NHTSA said regulations can't keep pace with the technology.
But Hall said such statistics compel him and the safety board to ask for improved features. The leading cause of death for the nation's children is highway crashes, which killed more than 82,000 people under the age of 20 during the 1990-98 period.
However, closer analysis reveals that of those 82,000, more than 52,000 were in the 16-to-20 age group, and according to agency records, about 37 percent of them were in crashes in which a driver was drinking alcohol.
Still, Hall aides say data reveal a growing problem for children in the 5-to-15 age group. During the 1982-98 period, deaths of those 4 and under went down 8 percent, but fatalities for 5-to-9-year-olds rose 23 percent and went up 13 percent for 10-15-year-olds.
NO REGULATORY POWER
Hall's agency is best known for its investigations of aviation crashes but is also charged with studying safety shortcomings in other modes of transportation.
It does not have regulatory power but attempts, often through media publicity, to goad other government agencies and transportation-related companies into taking the steps it recommends.
Hall, in such an attempt last week, applauded DaimlerChrysler and General Motor for helping set up child safety seat-fitting stations and said other companies should worry about their customers going to competitors for the inspections.
Sara Tatchio, safety spokeswoman for Ford Motor Co., said DaimlerChrysler and GM deserve praise. But she said her company has taught many families how to protect children with its national campaign using 'Sesame Street' characters. And Ford was the first to offer inside-the-trunk release latches in every vehicle.
Plus, she added, more announcements are coming. One, set for today, is about a joint promotion between Ford and Kmart Corp. to cut the cost of easy-to-use child seats.
Said Tatchio: 'We value children along with all our other occupants.'