U.S. Auto Safety Has Progressed Considerably in 20 Years

Prompted by the twentieth anniversary this month of Unsafe At Any Speed, I looked back at one of our country’s more preventable daily tragedies and saw very considerable progress. In 1945, there were 47,000 fatalities on the roads which amounted to 5.3 deaths per 100 million miles of vehicle travel. In 1984 with a far larger number of vehicles and drivers on the highways, there were 44,250 fatalities came to 2.6 deaths per hundred million vehicle miles.
The casualty count last year would have been further reduced had the auto companies, especially the biggest — General Motors -‑ been less obstructive of the federal motor vehicle safety program. This federal effort started in 1966, following much controversy and many GM blunders, with the enactment of two laws mandating the President to set vehicle safety standards and initiate other programs regarding highways and drivers. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, over 100,000 lives have been saved and a far larger number of injuries prevented or reduced in severity as a result of these modest federal efforts. Standard equipment air bags for the entire front seat would have more than doubled that number of prevented casualties.

If there was a major airline crash every day, would any. President display reluctance or hostility to strong corrective action? Every day, an average of 120 people die on the highways and President Reagan couldn’t wait to dismantle the federal auto safety program in 1981. He actually campaigned before auto industry audiences in Michigan and promised to do just that. It took a unanimous Supreme Court in 1983 to rebuke Mr. Reagan by ruling that his revocation of the lifesaving crash protection standard in 1981 was unlawful.

The former united front of the auto industry has been broken. This month, Mercedes announced that air bags would be standard equipment for the driver side in all its cars sold in North America. Also this month, Ford Motor Co. stated that, starting next March, driver side air bags would be available as an option on its Tempo and Topaz cars. Now that a European manufacturer and a U.S. manufacturer have started up this crucial safety path; a concurring company would spell irreversibility for air bag adoption and the other companies could not stay on the sidelines for very long.

The breaking of the industry’s ranks demonstrates the safety and aesthetic superiority of air bags over shoulder harness. It also reveals how long top executives of manufacturers can over-ride both their own engineers and overwhelming evidence to foster a phalanx of political opposition to all federal regulation of the auto industry.

Yet the experience with these federal initiatives has been good for the auto companies, especially the domestic auto companies. Fuel efficiency standards reduced some of the vulnerability of the U.S. cars to import competition. The gas guzzlers were about to self-destruct. The status of the automotive engineer inside these companies rose vis-à-vis the reign the stylists. Automotive engineering research and development expanded; international vehicle safe t, conferences came into being and innovations began to shake up a technologically stagnant industry.

More basic to safety progress was the way these federal standards and programs lifted up the expectation levels of the buying motorist. Consumers began demanding quality, better mileage per gallon, better warranty handling and they expected defective cars to be recalled as the law requires.

Dollars as well as lives are being saved. Dollars saved in less gasoline bought per mile, less medical, legal and repair bills due to avoided crashes or crash—injuries. And, high as insurance premiums are today, they would be still higher without federal safety requirements.

Much more needs to be done that can be easily accomplished. There is a lot of cost—beneficial safety engineering languishing on the shelf ranging from improved handling and braking to stronger side crash protection and automatic crash restraints as air bags can provide.

But there are not many national problems that are less serious today than they were twenty years ago. That safety on the highway is one such declining tragedy is a tribute to the support given by many. Americans to some intelligent community responses by their national government to achieve greater safety in motor vehicles and motor vehicle travel.

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