AUTOMOBILE SAFETY. Until the 1950s, Americans paid little attention to the problem of automobile safety. The typical American automobile had dashboards with numerous hard protrusions, no seatbelts, poor brakes and tires, noncollapsible steering columns, doors that opened on impact, soft seats and suspension systems, and windshield glass that shattered easily. These features were the consequence of manufacturer neglect, consumer preferences, the psychology of driving, and the failure of the government to further public interest in this matter.
Not surprisingly, more than thirty thousand Americans died as a result of traffic accidents in 1950, and that number increased to more than fifty thousand two decades later. Despite obvious evidence to the contrary, industry representatives maintained that drivers and their behaviors, not automobile design features, caused accidents and injuries. Nevertheless, several forces for change converged during the late 1950s and the early 1960s. Indeed, by the end of the 1960s, the previously unassailable industry was brought to its knees by the rising tide of public opinion, regulatory legislation, and a newly created federal government bureaucracy.
One major reason for the new emphasis on auto safety came as a result of enhanced technical knowledge about the "second crash," that is, the collision of the automobile's passengers with the interior after the initial exterior impact. Wartime studies at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Cornell University Medical College in New York on aircraft cockpit injuries were subsequently extended to similar phenomena inside automobiles at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory. Evidence from these studies, coupled with the work of the Detroit plastic surgeon Claire Straith on "guest" passenger injuries, clearly suggested that relatively simple design modifications could save lives and prevent serious injuries. In 1955 and 1956 the industry was confronted with these facts and failed to respond with enthusiasm. The industry thus lost any chance to remain autonomous with regard to safety and design, and federal legislation addressing design safety passed a decade later.
The convergence of forces for change took the industry by total surprise in the months immediately after the presidential election of 1964. The willingness of the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson to sponsor social reform legislation and the appearance on the Washington scene of Ralph Nader, Abraham Ribicoff, and the American Trial Lawyers' Association are only part of the story. Additionally, widespread consumer dissatisfaction with the American automobile industry, its practices, and its increasingly defective products contributed to the realization that auto safety was a good political issue and news story.
In 1966, Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, establishing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) within the Department of Commerce. This agency created standards for production vehicles that included recessed and padded dashes, dual braking systems, standard bumper heights, safety door latches, and impact-absorbing steering columns. The scope of the NHTSA was later expanded to include mandated public recall of defective vehicles, seat belt enforcement issues, and an active campaign to introduce passive restraints, including air bags. Ever at the center of controversy, the NHTSA continued in the early twenty-first century to have its detractors as well as supporters, the former arguing that enhanced safety features have in reality done little to change the incidence of automobile deaths and injuries, events that ultimately must be traced to driver judgment and behavior.
Drew, Elizabeth Brenner. "The Politics of Auto Safety." Atlantic Monthly 218 (October 1966): 95–105.
Eastman, Joel W. Styling vs. Safety: The American Automobile Industry and the Development of Automotive Safety, 1900–1966. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1984.
Flink, James J. The Automobile Age. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988.