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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.”

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

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