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Seat belt poster, 1984
Seat belt poster, 1984

Few motorists wore seat belts when they became standard equipment in 1968. Between the 1970s and 1990s, compliance increased from less than 20 percent to more than 80 percent. Federally-sponsored safety campaigns on television and radio and in print media drove home the message that seat belts and air bags save lives. Between 1984 and 1995, forty-nine states passed laws requiring motorists to buckle up. In 1998, the federal government won a 30-year quest to require air bags in new cars, reflecting a philosophy that safety technology should be the first line of defense in an accident.

By the 1990s, acceptance of automotive safety equipment had become a social norm. Motorists became convinced that buckling up could save their lives in an accident instead of trapping them in the wreckage. Manufacturers no longer feared that safety equipment made cars appear dangerous or hurt sales. Safety devices became desirable because consumers believed in their lifesaving virtues.

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