While waiting for a friend to untangle the seatbelt she had managed to snag in the door (don’t ask me how), I thought about the family car of my childhood. The 1961 Buick LeSabre was not originally equipped with seatbelts nor any visibly apparent
safety accessories. Dad installed a pair of old aviation grade seatbelts for the front seat passenger and driver. There were none in the back, so my siblings and I often stood on the floor during long highway trips. Nor was that Buick designed with pedestrian safety in mind, either. For some reason, it had a pointy projection “design enhancement” on each front fender and two on the front bumper.
Thankfully, that car was never involved in a traffic mishap. No pedestrians were harmed and nobody was thrown through the windshield. I shudder to think of possible accident scenarios involving that vehicle.
Thousands of other Americans were not so fortunate in those days. During 1961, alone, 36,285 people lost their lives due to traffic accidents. That figure translates to 19.8-percent per 100,000 people, a slight improvement over the previous years. By 1965, 47,089 people were killed in traffic wrecks in the US or 24.2-percent per 100,000 population. The marked increase in fatalities over the years was unsettling to many drivers, safety advocates, and lawmakers.
In 1965, Ralph Nader’s Unsafe At Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile was published. The book described the inherant flaws of cars, in particular the Chevrolet Corvair. The public reacted with alarm to the book.
Nader apparently became the focus of excessive scrutiny from the bigwigs at the automaker. It has been alleged that GM hired private investigators to follow Nader around, place an electronic bug on his telephone, and arrange for prostitutes to solicit him in an effort to place Nader in a compromising position. None of the negative attempts worked. When the entrapment efforts were revealed, Unsafe At Any Speed became a phenomenon on the best seller lists.
These were the trigger events that led to Nader testifying before Congress on motor vehicle safety during hearings regarding the proposed National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety legislation.
The legislative proposal would authorize the government to mandate and regulate safety standards for vehicles and roadways. The most noteworthy additions to highway safety would be “Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards”, and the “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices”.
On June 24, 1966 The US Senate voted 76 to 0 in favor of the legislation. On August 18th, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed it by 318 to 3. Then, on September 9th, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act into law.
The act established a new agency under the auspices of the US Commerce Department to set safety standards, beginning with the 1968 model year. The National Highway Safety Bureau, NHSB, was later renamed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA.
Some of the most noteworthy improvements included more effective windshield wipers, glare reduction on exterior and interior surfaces, padded dashboards, standardized bumper heights, dual braking systems, impact-absorbing steering columns, headrests, and standard equipment seat belts.
Regarding highways, better lane markings were standardized, road surfaces were to include standard centerline stripes, road edge stripes and reflectors. There was the addition of guardrails and barriers separating oncoming traffic lanes on turnpikes and freeways. Improved lighting of urban and intersection portions of roadways were mandated. Of special note was the requirement for breakaway signs and poles.
The results were soon apparent as traffic related fatality rates began a mostly steady decline that started showing up in 1970. That year, fatalities per 100,000 were 25.7. The latest figures available at this writing were 10.3 per 100,000 for the year 2013.
The regulations mandated by the traffic and vehicles safety act were enhanced by the introduction of better driver education in schools, better enforcement of DWI/DUI and underage alcohol consumption laws. In addition, there was passage and enforcement of motorcycle helmet use laws, along with seatbelt and child safety seat legislation. The rider/occupant protection devices and enforcement of use enabled the greatest improvement of the traffic related death and injury statistics.
Because contemporary vehicles are more complicated due to mandated regulations, we have a much better chance of surviving the unwelcome surprise of a traffic accident.