Federal regulation of car safety–a success!

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?

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

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