Federal management of our health and well-being: car safety

Posted on August 20, 2009. Filed under: American history, Economics, Politics | Tags: , , , |

Here’s part 3 of our small series, inspired by the health-care debate, on whether the federal government can properly look after our health and well-being. We turn here from food and drug safety to cars.

The safety of the cars manufacted by U.S. automakers was completely unmonitored by anyone before the 1960s. For decades Americans drove cars that not only were often unsafe, but were under absolutely no pressure to be safe. There was no consumer protection service for drivers. If your car was dangerous, that was your problem. Causes of accidents were not investigated with an eye to forcing car manufacturers to improve their products. In 1958 the UN established an international “forum” for vehicle regulation, but the U.S. refused to join it. As is so often the case, manufacturers assumed—and protested loudly—that any oversight would be fatal to them, that bankruptcy was the only possible outcome of regulation, and that U.S. consumers did not want safety regulations.

By 1965, all this de-regulation had created a situation where, according to a report released the next year by the National Academies of Science, car accidents were the leading cause of death “in the first half of life’s span” (from the “History of US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration NHTSA” website at http://www.usrecallnews.com/2008/06/history-of-the-u-s-national-highway-traffic-safety-administration-nhtsa.html).

The Big Three responded as they always had—by saying that all accidents were the result of driver error or bad roads. Since the 1920s, U.S. car manufacturers had pushed what they called the “Three E’s”—Engineering, Enforcement and Education”. As Ralph Nader put it (much more about him later) “Enforcement” and “Education” were directed at drivers, and “Engineering” was directed at all those bad roads causing accidents.

With the federal government still reluctant to step in and regulation car manufacturer safety standards—just as Congress, lobbied relentlessly by criminal food manufacturers had refused to step in to regulate food and drug safety—it took a bombshell book to shake up the status quo.

Next: Ralph Nader and Unsafe at Any Speed

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