FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Federal Regulation Saves Millions of Lives

Fifty years ago this month (on September 9, 1966), President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety laws that launched a great life-saving program for the American People.

I was there that day at the White House at the invitation of President Johnson who gave me one of the signing pens. In 1966, traffic fatalities reached 50,894 or 5.50 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. By 2014, the loss of life was 32,675 or 1.07 fatalities per hundred million vehicle miles traveled. A huge reduction!

This was an astounding success for a federal safety program that included mandatory vehicle-safety standards (seat belts, airbags, better brakes, tires and handling among other advances) and upgrading driver and highway-safety standards.

When the crashworthy standards were first proposed in 1967, Henry Ford II warned that they “would shut down the industry.” Ten years later on NBC’s Meet the Press he conceded, “We wouldn’t have the kinds of safety built into automobiles that we have had unless there had been a federal law.”

At the White House signing ceremony, I distributed a brief statement, requested the previous day by the New York Times, which said “To translate potential into reality will require competent and vigorous administration of the laws and new manufacturing priorities by the auto industry.”

Over the years, the political pressure of the almost always resistant auto industry stalled, slowed and sometimes shut down National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA) initiatives. Toady administrators taking orders from the auto companies’ friends in Congress, such as Congressman John Dingell (D, MI) and the White House all slowed auto safety advances. Nonetheless, based on the comparative yardstick of fatalities per motor-vehicle miles travelled over the years, the Center for Auto Safety estimated 3.5 million lives saved between 1966 and 2014 in the United States.

Of course, the number of injuries prevented or diminished is even greater. The savings in hundreds of billions of dollars spent on crash consequences – such as property damage, medical expenses, wage losses and less tangible costs such as family anguish and disruption are major additional benefits from rational regulation.

If the auto company bosses had liberated their own engineers and scientists and cooperated with the federal regulators, who early on were physicians and engineers, even more casualties would have been prevented.

Today, the challenges remain in the upgrading of the operational and safety aspects of motor vehicles, especially large trucks, improvements in highway infrastructure and handling drivers distracted by cell phones or under the influence. Much is being written of futuristic self-driving, autonomous vehicles. Don’t be taken in with the hype, or the arrogant reliance on algorithms. It will be many years, if ever, until the entire vehicle fleet is converted into unhackable, driverless machines.

Meanwhile, modest semi-autonomous braking systems, with drivers still at the steering wheel, are here and will improve. There will be other systems inviting the dependency of drivers which will raise questions of ultimate control of a fast-moving vehicle.

Recent disclosures – the GM ignition switch defect crime and the VW criminal manipulation of software regarding toxic emissions – demand the passage of a criminal penalty amendment to the 1966 safety law. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D, CT) and Edward Markey (D, MA) have introduced such a bill – S. 900 – but it is blocked by soft-on-corporate-crime Republicans.

The consumer advocates’ struggle to save lives on the highway, including those of pedestrians and motorcyclists, continues. Despite many innovations (see Rob Cirincione’s report) by the automotive suppliers, the bureaucratic auto companies still have that old “not-invented-here” syndrome bedeviling them.

Can a young person today, writing a book exposing an industry’s chronic abuses, experience such a level of Congressional action and recurrent media attention as was accorded me and my book Unsafe at Any Speed?

Very doubtful, without a brand new Congress. The Congress doesn’t have enough Senators and Representatives like Senators Warren Magnuson, Abraham Ribicoff, Gaylord Nelson and Congressman John Moss, who took on the auto giants and persisted until enactment of the necessary legislation. There is less perceived rumble from the people than in the nineteen sixties.

Also a more corporate media gives us celebrity stories, sports, natural and man-made violent disasters, political horseraces and just plain fluff. News by citizen groups is not a media priority.

Democracy and its result – a more just society – is not a spectator sport. People have to organize to challenge the forces of injustice. As the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass said for the ages: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. Never has and never will.”

More articles by:

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

January 16, 2019
Patrick Bond
Jim Yong Kim’s Mixed Messages to the World Bank and the World
John Grant
Joe Biden, Crime Fighter from Hell
Alvaro Huerta
Brief History Notes on Mexican Immigration to the U.S.
Kenneth Surin
A Great Speaker of the UK’s House of Commons
Elizabeth Henderson
Why Sustainable Agriculture Should Support a Green New Deal
Binoy Kampmark
Trump, Bolton and the Syrian Confusion
Jeff Mackler
Trump’s Syria Exit Tweet Provokes Washington Panic
Barbara Nimri Aziz
How Long Can Nepal Blame Others for Its Woes?
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: When Just One Man Says, “No”
Cesar Chelala
Violence Against Women: A Pandemic No Longer Hidden
Kim C. Domenico
To Make a Vineyard of the Curse: Fate, Fatalism and Freedom
Dave Lindorff
Criminalizing BDS Trashes Free Speech & Association
Thomas Knapp
Now More Than Ever, It’s Clear the FBI Must Go
Binoy Kampmark
Dances of Disinformation: The Partisan Politics of the Integrity Initiative
Andrew Stewart
The Green New Deal Must be Centered on African American and Indigenous Workers to Differentiate Itself From the Democratic Party: Part Two
Edward Curtin
A Gentrified Little Town Goes to Pot
January 15, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
Refugees Are in the English Channel Because of Western Interventions in the Middle East
Howard Lisnoff
The Faux Political System by the Numbers
Lawrence Davidson
Amos Oz and the Real Israel
John W. Whitehead
Beware the Emergency State
John Laforge
Loudmouths against Nuclear Lawlessness
Myles Hoenig
Labor in the Age of Trump
Jeff Cohen
Mainstream Media Bias on 2020 Democratic Race Already in High Gear
Dean Baker
Will Paying for Kidneys Reduce the Transplant Wait List?
George Ochenski
Trump’s Wall and the Montana Senate’s Theater of the Absurd
Binoy Kampmark
Dances of Disinformation: the Partisan Politics of the Integrity Initiative
Glenn Sacks
On the Picket Lines: Los Angeles Teachers Go On Strike for First Time in 30 Years
Jonah Raskin
Love in a Cold War Climate
Andrew Stewart
The Green New Deal Must be Centered on African American and Indigenous Workers to Differentiate Itself From the Democratic Party
January 14, 2019
Kenn Orphan
The Tears of Justin Trudeau
Julia Stein
California Needs a 10-Year Green New Deal
Dean Baker
Declining Birth Rates: Is the US in Danger of Running Out of People?
Robert Fisk
The US Media has Lost One of Its Sanest Voices on Military Matters
Vijay Prashad
5.5 Million Women Build Their Wall
Nicky Reid
Lessons From Rojava
Ted Rall
Here is the Progressive Agenda
Robert Koehler
A Green Future is One Without War
Gary Leupp
The Chickens Come Home to Roost….in Northern Syria
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: “The Country Is Watching”
Sam Gordon
Who Are Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists?
Weekend Edition
January 11, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Richard Moser
Neoliberalism: Free Market Fundamentalism or Corporate Power?
Paul Street
Bordering on Fascism: Scholars Reflect on Dangerous Times
Joseph Majerle III – Matthew Stevenson
Who or What Brought Down Dag Hammarskjöld?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Joshua Frank
How Tre Arrow Became America’s Most Wanted Environmental “Terrorist”
Andrew Levine
Dealbreakers: The Democrats, Trump and His Wall
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail