A History of Traffic Safety in the United States: Part Three

This is a four-part series on the history of traffic safety reforms in the United States.  Part one is here, and part two is here.


Crashworthiness Paradigm: 1960s-1980s

“We have drivers performing millions of maneuvers in their automobile adequately, even overpowering the deficiencies of their automobile…and then they make that one mistake, and should they die for that one mistake?…[W]e should build cars that take into effect that one, or those two mistakes…”  -Ralph Nader, U.S. Senate traffic safety hearings, 1965

  Image courtesy of   WNPR  .  Pictured in the foreground is a Chevrolet Corvair, a model that Nader mentioned was poorly designed and especially unsafe for occupants.

Image courtesy of WNPR.  Pictured in the foreground is a Chevrolet Corvair, a model that Nader mentioned was poorly designed and especially unsafe for occupants.

During the 1960s, safety experts and congressmen began to criticize the efficacies of the ‘Three E’s approach especially in regards to its goal of optimizing driver behavior.  The issue of pedestrian safety was less apparent than in previous paradigms.  For many, the decades of educational campaigns, traffic engineering, and enforcement mechanisms were not successful in mitigating the number of vehicle collisions and subsequent fatalities.  Although fatalities declined during World War II in relation to war rations and the amount of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), the total number of deaths and the rate of fatalities per VMT increased during the 1950s and especially during the 1960s. In 1965, for example, vehicle fatalities totaled 48,000 persons, and that number would continue to increase into the 1970s.  So instead of the ‘collision avoidance’ proposition that was advocated in the previous paradigm, safety advocates shifted towards a ‘collision inevitability’ approach that recognized the range of errors that drivers are bound to make behind the wheel.  At a Senate hearing for encouraging new crash-worthy vehicle safety practices, Senator Abraham Ribicoff underscores the ‘collision inevitability’ approach with the following statement:

“The driver has many faults.  He is negligent; he is careless; he is reckless.  We understand that…I think it will be the millennium if you will ever get a situation where the millions and millions of drivers will all be perfect.  They will always be making errors and making mistakes.”

This should not be interpreted as a laissez-faire response to vehicle fatalities but rather as a distinct shift of responsibility from the driver to vehicle, or more specifically the automotive manufacturer.  If drivers would inevitably land on a spectrum between ineptitude and recklessness, then safety experts and advocates must work with automobile companies to reduce the effects of vehicular collisions and lower the risk of injury or death.  Jameson Wetmore describes how safety-oriented researchers and doctors began using the term “second collision”–that between the vehicle’s occupants colliding with the vehicle’s interior–as way to discuss overall risk reduction.  Structural reinforcements to the vehicle in addition to safety improvements within the vehicle’s interior would, according to safety advocates, decrease the intensity of occupant injury and likelihood of fatalities.

The automobile industry was hesitant to incorporate the crashworthiness approach into their business models. One reason was that the previous argument of auto companies–user error is the chief cause of traffic accidents–would be undermined by the positional shift.  Another reason concerned the company bottom line and the marketing efforts towards that end.  During the early stage of this paradigm a number of safety enhancements were proposed, such as collapsible steering columns and padded dashboards.  The “Big Three” auto companies (Ford, Dodge, and Chevrolet) contended that “safety doesn’t sell” and, according to Ladd, they did not include updated safety features as a means to keep costs down and remain competitive.  During the aforementioned Senate hearings, Senator Ribicoff argued that safety should not be optional features subject to marketing input but rather standard on all models: “It is a question of selling him safety or do you have a responsibility of producing a safe car with safety items?”   

  Image courtesy of    LBJ Presidential Library

Image courtesy of LBJ Presidential Library

 In 1966 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was established.  The previous claims of the automobile being “perfected by science and industry” were no longer valid, and laws followed that would mandate safety features within new automobiles.  Notably, the total number of vehicle fatalities began decreasing into the 1970s and 1980s.