Highway Safety Act of 1966

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Highway Safety Act of 1966

Todd Olmstead

Excerpt from the Highway Safety Act

Each State shall have a highway safety program approved by the Secretary, designed to reduce traffic accidents and deaths, injuries, and property damage resulting therefrom. Such programs shall be in accordance with uniform standards promulgated by the Secretary.... Such uniform standards shall be promulgated by the Secretary so as to improve driver performance ... and to improve pedestrian performance. In addition such uniform standards shall include ... provisions for an effective record system of accidents ... , accident investigations ... , vehicle registration, operation, and inspection, highway design and maintenance ... , traffic control, vehicle codes and laws, surveillance of traffic for detection and correction of high or potentially high accident locations, and emergency services.

The Highway Safety Act of 1966 (P.L. 89-564, 80 Stat. 731) established a coordinated national highway safety program to reduce the death toll on the nation's roads. The act authorized states to use federal funds to develop and strengthen their highway traffic safety programs in accordance with uniform standards promulgated by the secretary of transportation.

The act was motivated primarily by growing public concern over the rising number of traffic fatalities in the United States. Between 1960 and 1965, the annual number of traffic fatalities increased by nearly thirty percent. As President Lyndon B. Johnson stated at the signing of the act on September 9, 1966, " ... we have tolerated a raging epidemic of highway death ... which has killed more of our youth than all other diseases combined. Through the Highway Safety Act, we are going to find out more about highway diseaseand we aim to cure it."

During its early years, the act required the secretary of transportation to establish uniform performance standards for the state highway safety programs. To be eligible for federal funds, states were required to formulate comprehensive highway safety programs to implement the federal standards. The initial thirteen (later eighteen) standards promulgated by the secretary touched on many aspects of highway traffic safety, including driver education, driver licensing, vehicle registration, vehicle inspection, highway design and maintenance, and traffic control devices. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) jointly administered the standards, with NHTSA taking responsibility for the "driver and vehicle" standards and FHWA overseeing the "roadway" standards.

Administration during the early years focused primarily on ensuring state compliance with the uniform performance standards. By 1976, however, state highway safety programs had matured considerably, and Congress amended the act to give states more flexibility in implementation. In essence, the standards became more like guidelines, and administration of the act "shifted from enforcing standards to using the standards as a framework for problem identification, countermeasure development, and program evaluation."

The act was amended in 1987 to formally change the standards to guidelines. Another amendment stipulated that only projects belonging to one of nine National Priority Program areas (e.g., speed control, alcohol and other drug countermeasures, emergency medical services) were eligible for certain types of funding under the act. In 1998, however, this constraint was relaxed by another amendment requiring only that "States 'consider' the National Priority Program areas when developing their highway safety programs."

The Highway Safety Act of 1966 has undoubtedly improved traffic safety in the United States by providing leadership, guidance, and financial assistance to state highway safety programs. However, it is difficult to estimate with certainty the act's precise impact. Although between 1966 and 2001 traffic fatalities and the fatality rate (measured in fatalities per million vehicle miles traveled) declined 17 percent and 71 percent, respectively, at least some of the improvement in traffic safety is due to changes in other factors that contribute to motor vehicle crashes. These include the promulgation of federal motor vehicle safety standards (see the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966), and improvements in medicine.

See also: National Emissions Standards Act; National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966.


US Department of Transportation. National Highway Safety Bureau. 1969 Report on Activities Under the Highway Safety Act. Washington DC: The Bureau, 1969.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Federal Highway Administration, US Department of Transportation. "Uniform Procedures for State Highway Safety Programs." <http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov>.