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American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

American Government Topics:  Rodney E. Slater


National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
April 16, 1997

Wednesday, April 16, 1997
Contact:  Bill Adams
Tel. No. (202) 366-9550

"If there is one thing we can do to save thousands of American lives, it is to increase seat belt use nationwide."
President Clinton, Dec. 28, 1996

Responding to President Clinton's call to increase the number of Americans using their seat belts, Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater today released a national strategy to bring U.S. seat belt use to 85 percent by the year 2000.

Secretary Slater was joined by five former Secretaries of Transportation --Alan Boyd, Andrew Card, William Coleman, Federico Peña and Samuel Skinner --and a broad coalition of leaders from government, safety organizations and business which have pledged to assist the effort to reduce deaths and injuries by increasing the use of seat belts.

"Last year more than 40,000 people died and another 3.4 million were injured on our nation's highways. Yet nearly a third of all Americans -- and an astonishing 40 percent of children -- don't use their seat belts today," said Secretary Slater. ABy raising seat belt use to 85 percent, every year we will save more than 4,000 lives, prevent more than 100,000 injuries and save $6.7 billion in related costs.

"As President Clinton said in his inaugural address, 'We need a new sense of responsibility for a new century. There is work to do, work that government alone cannot do," Secretary Slater said. "I invite everyone to take this responsibility seriously and join in the effort to increase seat belt use. Seat belts are the number one way to save lives, and that's why we want everyone to buckle up for life."

Recognizing the former secretaries, Slater said, "Each of you helped move the ball forward to dramatically reduce the number of fatalities and injuries on our highways over the last 30 years. Your legacy, particularly noteworthy as the Department of Transportation celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, has led us to declare a bold commitment to the safety of future generations of Americans."

Seat belt use nationwide increased rapidly from 14 percent 15 years ago to 68 percent in 1996, but has risen very slowly in recent years. However, six states (California, Hawaii, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington) have already increased seat belt use to 80 percent or greater, demonstrating that the goal is within reach.

Seat belt use in many other industrialized countries exceeds 85 percent. In Australia, Germany and Canada, seat belt use exceeds 90 percent.

In a December radio address, President Clinton asked all Americans to always wear seat belts as a first line of defense against injuries and fatalities and always to keep children aged 12 and under buckled in the back seat where they are safest. He directed the Secretary of Transportation to develop a plan to increase the use of seat belts nationwide.

The plan, developed by the department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has four elements:

  • Build public-private partnerships to help America reach its potential of saving lives and preventing injuries through the use of seat belts and child safety seats;
  • Expand well-coordinated effective public education programs;
  • Ask the states to enact strong legislation for standard seat belt laws and strengthened child passenger safety laws; and
  • Embrace active, high visibility law enforcement of seat belt laws.

    Taking the first step to help achieve the seat belt use goal, President Clinton issued an executive order directing federal agencies to upgrade their transportation policies to ensure on-the-job seat belt use by employees and by examining ways to increase seat belt use by motorists in national parks areas and on defense installations. The executive order also will encourage federal government contractors and recipients of federal grants to institute on-the-job seat belt use policies and programs for employees.

    The action today involves several other major efforts previously announced by the President. As part of his National Economic Crossroads Transportation Efficiency Act (NEXTEA) sent to Congress last month, he recommended $124 million for incentive grants to states to improve occupant protection as well as more than $1 billion in flexible safety funds that states could choose to use for seat belt enforcement and education programs. Additionally, as part of a comprehensive seat belt strategy, President Clinton will include in the NEXTEA legislation a requirement that states which have not reached the goal of 85 percent seat belt use by the year 2002, or have not passed a primary seat belt law, will have 1.5 percent of their federal highway funds redirected to existing safety programs. This amount would increase to 3 percent in subsequent years.

    Under President Clinton's leadership, the department has improved the safety of motorists by developing a comprehensive strategy to preserve the benefits of air bags and decrease their potential hazard to children and at-risk adults. In addition, it has proposed an innovative, universal attachment system for child safety seats to make child seats more secure and easier to use.

    According to NHTSA, one of the most effective ways of increasing seat belt use rates is to provide law enforcement officers primary seat belt use laws as enhanced tools for improving safety.

    "President Clinton is taking the first step toward increasing seat belt use by requiring federal employees to use their seat belts while they work," Slater said. "The next step in our national strategy will be to seek similar commitments from state and local governments, national organizations, businesses, local communities, and most important, individual citizens. All can become partners in this effort to get America to buckle up so that together we can prevent many of the tragic, unnecessary deaths and injuries that result when people do not use child safety seats and seat belts."

    Joining Secretary Slater at the podium was Reva Dowell of Rock Island, Ill., whose life was saved by her seat belt during an accident last December. "A pickup truck pulled out of a side road directly in front of me, and I hit it full force with the front end of my car. Pieces of my car were strewn everywhere," she stated. "Police and ambulance attendants all said it was because I had my seat belt on and the air bag inflated that my life was saved. People need to know that using the seat belt is just as important as the air bag."

    Maryland State Police Col. David B. Mitchell, speaking for the International Association of Chiefs of Police in support of seat belt use, said, "The men and women of law enforcement across America are committed to saving lives, and we know the use of seat belts and child safety seats is of critical importance to our mission of keeping our citizens safe on our streets and highways."

    Nancy Auer, M.D., president-elect of the American College of Emergency Physicians, also voiced strong support. "As an emergency physician, I know that seat belts and child safety seats work. Every time someone who is in a motor vehicle crash is properly belted, I know another life has been saved, a debilitating injury has been avoided, another family spared," she said. "We are pleased to join our partners to stop the epidemic of injuries caused by motor vehicle crashes. We plan to ask our members to work within their communities to educate their patients and the general public to support safety belt and child safety seat legislation

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