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.
Next: How big is Social Security?
Ralph Nader’s landmark book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile is the focus of part 4 of our series on the federal government’s management of public health and well-being.
The book came out in 1965, and each of its chapters covered one problem with car safety (an overview can be found at Unsafe at Any Speed). For instance, the most famous chapter is on the Chevrolet Corvair, and it’s called “The One-Car Accident.” From 1960-3 the Corvair was built with a faulty rear engine and suspension design that led to accidents. Nader also pointed out how shiny chrome dashboards reflected the sun into drivers’ eyes, non-standard shift controls leading to fatal mistakes, and expensive styling changes carmakers prioritized while stating that safer design would bankrupt them. Nader’s strongest point was that automakers knew how dangerous their cars could be, but did nothing about it because of the cost and the fear of arousing public anger.
GM tried to paint Nader as a lunatic. According to testimony in the 1970 case Nader brought against GM, “…[GM] cast aspersions upon [his] political, social, racial and religious views; his integrity; his sexual proclivities and inclinations; and his personal habits; (2) kept him under surveillance in public places for an unreasonable length of time; (3) caused him to be accosted by girls for the purpose of entrapping him into illicit relationships (4) made threatening, harassing and obnoxious telephone calls to him; (5) tapped his telephone and eavesdropped, by means of mechanical and electronic equipment, on his private conversations with others; and (6) conducted a ‘continuing’ and harassing investigation of him.”
Despite this attack, Nader persevered in speaking to the public, and that public’s outcry led to the development and passage of the 1966 Highway Safety Act.
Next time: the federal government gets behind the wheel of car safety