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Political wrangling may impede bill on new federal car safety standards aimed at protecting children

Political wrangling threatens lifesaving bill
Congress to decide on bill aimed at protecting children by improving federal safety standards 04:47

Advocates are worried about the fate of new auto safety standards tucked inside Congress' $1 trillion infrastructure bill, including one for vehicle seats. It was prompted by a years-long CBS News investigation that revealed potential seatback dangers linked to a government safety standard that may be outdated.

Congressional correspondent Kris Van Cleave, who has been investigating this story since 2015, reports that buried inside the 2,700-page bill for roads, bridges, airports and waterways are a host of auto safety initiatives, including one inspired by our six-year CBS News investigation. It aims to change what safety advocates say is a dangerously outdated regulation that's turning crashes deadly. 

Our CBS News investigation (which first aired in October 2015) discovered that it had been known for decades that, when hit from behind, the front seats in all types of passenger vehicles can collapse, launching occupants into the backseat.

Injuries can be catastrophic, something the Fraser family lives with the consequences of every day.

Jayden Faith was a 12-year-old full of motion — a competitive dancer and eight-time state champion gymnast. But on Thanksgiving 2016, everything changed. The family was driving home from serving meals to the homeless when their car was rear-ended.

When asked how life had changed, Jayden's mother, Michelle Fraser, replied: "In every way."

"Like, B.C. and A.D.," Jayden's father, Jason Fraser, said. "Like, a definitiveness of, we talk about our life before and after, because there's no comparison."

"When it happened, it was like a bomb went off," said Michelle. "Something's wrong. Very wrong, because she was just slumped and convulsing." 

"She died on the side of the road," Jason said. "The paramedics put her in the ambulance, they said there's no light in her eyes, she was gone."

But somehow, "Jay-Fay," as her parents call her, did survive, despite a 360-degree skull fracture and a life-changing traumatic brain injury, leaving her unable to walk or speak.

Van Cleave asked, "What do you miss? Is there something you miss most? Probably hearing her voice?"

"Yeah, that's my number one," Jason replied.

"I miss seeing her dance," Michelle said.

The Frasers are not alone. CBS News identified dozens of families that know their pain all too well.

Following a six-year CBS News investigation on collapsing seats in passenger vehicles, the fate of a bill to correct the problem is tied up in political infighting over the fate of the larger $1 trillion infrastructure bill. CBS News

While regulators acknowledge these types of crashes are under-reported, safety advocates estimate at least 50 people a year (mostly children in the back seat) die from them. But the seats all meet, or exceed, federal safety standards set by a regulation dating back to the 1960s.

Congresswoman Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) learned of the issue from our investigation, and led the effort in the House to fix the problem. "I really do feel that the time is now," she said, adding: "I think that credit should be given to CBS for you to identify this issue."

Inside the infrastructure bill is language requiring the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to draft a new, updated strength standard for vehicle seats within two years, but it requires the approval of the Secretary of Transportation before it can be implemented.

"This is a fix that's going to happen," Rice said. "The car manufacturers know it, and we're going to get it done."

Senators propose legislation to boost vehicle seat safety 01:55

But progressive Democrats are now threatening to join House Republicans and vote down the infrastructure bill unless President Biden's $3.5 trillion budget act passes first. They argue infrastructure alone fails to address the needs of the nation. The political wrangling has this potentially life-saving reform hanging in the balance.

Van Cleave asked Jason Fraser what he had to say to the politicians in Washington.

"The longer that you guys wait, you're just adding to the list of people just like us, letting children and adults die in these rear-end car accidents. It's unnecessary," he replied.

Safety advocates would have preferred language mandating the regulation change without requiring the Secretary of Transportation to weigh in.

The Frasers argue that any movement to action, sooner rather than later, is better than a perfect plan.

Since CBS News' first story on this issue aired in October 2015, a conservative estimate is that at least 300 people have died in these kinds of crashes. Most are likely children.

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