Last time in this series on successful federal management of public health and safety, we looked at Ralph Nader’s expose of automakers’ decision to put style ahead of safety. Now we see the federal government step in.
The 1966 Highway Safety Act mandated that the states create their own highway safety programs to reduce accidents, develop (or improve) emergency care for car accidents (this was when the paramedic program or EMS really came on the scene), and created the Department of Transportation (DOT), including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), to oversee these efforts. From now on, drivers would not be blamed for all car accidents.
We have the NHTSA to thank for crash-test dummies, fuel economy standards, safety belts, air bags, auto recalls, and consumer reports (not Consumer Report itself, but the concept of giving car buyers objective analyses of how safe cars are). These are safety features we take for granted today, but I remember the 1970s, when older cars I rode in didn’t have seat belts, and even when cars did have them, drivers misled by automakers believed that the belts wouldn’t help in an accident, and that the best way to stay safe while driving was to not make mistakes that led to an accident—remnants of the “it’s the driver’s fault” mentality pushed by automakers prior to 1966.
Automakers have continued to fight the federal government on safety, delaying HID and halogen headlights, air bags, and safety features to promote seat belt use, such as those pinging alarms you get when you don’t have yours on.
In all, federal regulation of car and road safety has contributed significantly to American health and well-being. Next time, we’ll begin our conclusion to this series with perhaps the biggest federal health-and-well-being program of them all: Social Security.