National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966

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National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966

Todd Olmstead

Excerpt from the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966

An Act to provide for a coordinated national safety program and establishment of safety standards for motor vehicles in interstate commerce to reduce accidents involving motor vehicles and to reduce the deaths and injuries occurring in such accidents.

The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 (P.L. 89-563, 80 Stat. 718) was enacted to reduce traffic accidents as well as the number of deaths and injuries to persons involved in traffic accidents. The act required regulators to establish federal motor vehicle safety standards to protect the public against "unreasonable risk of accidents occurring as a result of the design, construction or performance of motor vehicles" and also against "unreasonable risk of death or injury ... in the event accidents do occur."


The act was motivated by a variety of factors. First and foremost, the public was growing increasingly concerned over the rising number of traffic fatalities on the nation's roads. Such fatalities had increased by nearly 30 percent between 1960 and 1965, and experts forecasted 100,000 such deaths annually by 1975 unless something was done to improve traffic safety. Adding fuel to the fire, Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed, published in November 1965, criticized the automobile industry for neglecting safety in favor of "power and styling" when designing new vehicles.

Nader's criticism was later substantiated during hearings held by the Senate Commerce Committee in which committee members reported "disturbing evidence of the automobile industry's chronic subordination of safe design to promotional styling, and of an overriding stress on power, acceleration, speed, and 'ride' to the relative neglect of safe performance or collision protection." Committee members remarked that new vehicle models had shown little improvement in safe design or in the incorporation of safety devices until industry had been subjected to the prod of heightened public interest and governmental concern. Members also noted that even basic safety design features such as safety door latches did not become standard equipment until ten years after their desirability and feasibility had been established. In short, Congress decided that the industry had been neglecting vehicle safety long enough, and in August 1966 both houses unanimously passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which was signed the following month by President Lyndon B. Johnson.


Administration of the act evolved considerably during its first several years. Initially, the act was to be administered by the Secretary of Commerce through a newly created National Traffic Safety Agency. In October 1966, however, when the Department of Transportation was created, Congress declared that the act would be carried out by the Secretary of Transportation through a National Traffic Safety Bureau. In June 1967, Executive Order 11357 terminated the National Traffic Safety Bureau and transferred its responsibilities to the National Highway Safety Bureau (NHSB). The NHSB was originally established as a National Highway Safety Agency by the Highway Safety Act of 1966 and renamed a "Bureau" by the Department of Transportation Act. In December 1970 the Highway Safety Act of 1970 established the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to succeed the NHSB in carrying out the safety programs developed under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act.

The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 gave regulators until January 31, 1967 to develop federal motor vehicle safety standards that were practical, stated in objective terms, and met the need for motor vehicle safety. In addition, the initial federal standards were required to be based on existing safety standards, such as those developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers. New and revised federal standards (that did not need to be based on existing standards) were required by January 31, 1968. Violators of the standards were subject to a $1,000 civil penalty for each offense, up to a maximum of $400,000 for a related series of violations (the maximum penalty was increased to $800,000 in 1974).

Regulators issued twenty standards for passenger cars by the initial deadline, including rules requiring installation of seat belts for all occupants, impact-absorbing steering columns, padded dashboards, safety glass, and dual braking systems. In time, federal motor vehicle safety standards have expanded to cover many other aspects of motor vehicle safety, including everything from windshield wipers, lights, and rearview mirrors to door locks, head restraints, and fuel tanks. In addition, federal motor vehicle safety standards have been developed for trucks, buses, trailers, and motorcycles.


In 1974 the act was amended to require manufacturers to remedy safety-related defects at no cost to consumers. Prior to the 1974 amendment, the act merely empowered the Secretary of Transportation to declare that a safety-related defect existed and to require that manufacturers notify the owners of the defective vehiclesthe act did not require the manufacturers to fix the defect for free. In fact, a "repair at no cost" amendment had been considered as early as 1969, but was dropped when manufacturers promised Congress that all safety-related defects would be remedied at their expense, regardless of whether legislation required it. However, the industry broke its promise in 1971 and again in 1972, and so Congress responded by formally requiring manufacturers to fix all safety-related defects at no charge to consumers. A flurry of recalls took place in the years following the amendment, and the number of cars recalled for repair between 1977 and 1980 surpassed the number of new cars sold.

Although it is reasonable to conclude that the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 has improved traffic safety, it is difficult to estimate with certainty the precise impact of the act. Traffic fatalities and the fatality rate (measured in fatalities per million vehicle miles traveled) declined 17 percent and 71 percent, respectively, between 1967 and 2001. Undoubtedly, at least some of this improvement in traffic safety is due to the motor vehicle safety standards promulgated under the act. However, it is impossible to isolate the impact of these motor vehicle safety standards from the effects of changes in the myriad other factors that contribute to motor vehicle crashes, including changes in state laws governing speed limits, driver education, driver licensing, seat belt usage, drunk driving, and vehicle inspection as well as overall improvements in emergency response, medicine, highway design, and traffic control techniques.

See also: Highway Safety Act of 1966.


Graham, John D., ed. Preventing Automobile Injury: New Findings from Evaluation Research. Dover: Auburn House Publishing Company, 1988.

Mashaw, Jerry L., and David L. Harfst. The Struggle for Auto Safety. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Nader, Ralph. Unsafe at Any Speed. New York: Grossman Publishing, 1965.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation. National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966: Legislative History. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1985.

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