The automobile is a revolutionary technology. Increased personal mobility created new economic, social, and recreational opportunities and changed the American landscape. But the benefits of mobility were accompanied by dramatic new risks. Automobiles placed speed and power in the hands of individuals. In the early twentieth century, a soaring rate of traffic deaths and injuries prompted expressions of concern. A dialogue among physicians, safety advocates, engineers, journalists, and others revealed differing opinions about the causes of accidents, injuries, and fatalities. Driver behavior, automobile design, highway engineering, and traffic hazards all were blamed. Efforts to retain the benefits of personal mobility while minimizing its sometimes tragic consequences focused on specific problems from controlling driver behavior to redesigning automobiles to improving the driving environment. It took decades to understand, prioritize, and minimize these risk factors.
In the 1910s, speeding, reckless driving, collisions, and pedestrian fatalities were new problems requiring new solutions. The first remedies comprised a social response focused on controlling and improving driver behavior. By the early 1920s, the National Safety Council compiled accident statistics, held conferences, and sponsored Safety Week campaigns in cities in the hope that increased public
awareness would promote careful driving. Controlling driver behavior through laws, fines, signals, and drunk driving arrests were obvious ways to decrease the fatality rate.
Americans were slow to understand the importance of redesigning automobiles to make driving safer. At first, the automobile was perceived as a neutral device that merely responded to a drivers commands and could not cause an accident. But by the late 1920s, manufacturers acknowledged that design flaws compromised safety. They introduced a technological response to safety issues, adding shatter-resistant windshields and four-wheel brakes instead of two-wheel brakes.
In the 1930s, this approach evolved into a market response as auto makers actively promoted new safety improvements such as all-steel bodies and hydraulic brakes. Auto makers now assured motorists that modern cars were completely safe, and industry representatives contended that improving roads, licensing drivers, and regulating traffic was the key to preventing accidents. Seat belts, energy-absorbing steering columns, and padded dashboards were not installed, even though all of those devices had been invented by the 1930s.
In the 1950s, physicians and university professors who were concerned about motorist protection introduced a scientific response to auto safety problems. Crash testing at universities pinpointed the causes and effects of bodily impact inside a car during a collision. These studies convinced many people that it was necessary to package the driver and passengers with seat belts and padded dashboards. By 1956, those features were available as options on most new cars.
In the late 1950s, elected officials studied scientific findings from university crash tests. In the early 1960s, many state legislatures passed laws requiring seat belts or seat belt anchors in new cars. This movement grew into a comprehensive government response to auto safety issues. In 1966, Congress authorized the federal government to set safety standards for new cars. By 1968, seat belts, padded dashboards, and other safety features were mandatory equipment.
At first, most motorists didn't wear seat belts, but by the 1990s seat belts were widely accepted. Safety campaigns emphasized the importance of buckling up, and state laws made motorist compliance mandatory. By 1998 the federal government also required air bags as standard equipment. Forced technological change made the automobile itself the first line of defense in an accident.