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Tales of VUMC Past

The story behind the law that saved thousands of children

Robert Sanders, MD, and his wife Patricia were tireless advocates for a child safety-seat law that saved thousands of children and was a model for the nation.

by October 12, 2018

Patricia Sanders, child safety advocate and wife of the late Robert Sanders, MD attends the dedication of a historical marker at the Rutherford County Health Department in Murfreesboro. The marker honors Sanders and the passage of Tennessee’s landmark Child Passenger Protection Act. (Photo courtesy State of Tennessee).

Robert Sanders, MD, received his undergraduate and medical degrees at Vanderbilt University, where he also completed a residency in Pediatrics in the late 1950s. For decades he practiced pediatrics in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and for more than 20 years was head of the Rutherford County Health Department.

“We are so accustomed to immunization against childhood diseases like polio, measles and diphtheria. It behooves us to be interested in what is killing children nowadays — automobile crashes.”

In both of those professional capacities, he was horrified by the number of children killed or injured in car wrecks. He knew that many of those deaths and injuries could be prevented by car safety seats, and he also knew that at that time most parents didn’t use the seats for their children.

Robert Sanders, MD. File photo from Eskind Biomedical Library Historical Collection.

Sanders’ tireless work to persuade the Tennessee General Assembly to pass a mandatory child safety seat law led to the enactment of the Tennessee Child Passenger Protection Act, which was passed in 1977 and took effect in 1978. Tennessee was the first state to pass such a law.

The number of children killed in car wrecks in Tennessee dropped by half, and within seven years every state had passed a similar law.

The implications are plain: all over Tennessee, and all over the United States, there are people — some now middle aged, some young adults, and some who are still children — who are alive because of the mandatory child safety seat laws that Sanders championed.

A Tennessee state historical marker was unveiled Sept. 24 in recognition and honor of Sanders, who died in 2006. His widow, Patricia, his partner in lobbying for the life-saving legislation and also a Vanderbilt graduate, attended the ceremony.

The marker stands outside the offices of the Rutherford County Health Department, which Sanders led for more than 20 years while also practicing pediatrics in Murfreesboro.

In a 1981 article about him in People magazine, Sanders noted that pediatricians traditionally focused on preventive health for children, and he viewed his efforts as part of that tradition.

“We are so accustomed to immunization against childhood diseases like polio, measles and diphtheria,” he said. “It behooves us to be interested in what is killing children nowadays — automobile crashes.”

For his work, Sanders was honored by, among others, the Tennessee Medical Association, the Tennessee Public Health Association and the Tennessee Pediatric Society. He also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Robert Sanders, car seats, Pediatrics, Vanderbilt School of Medicine