Those who drive cars may not realize the amount of thought that goes into safety, both in terms of safety equipment in the vehicle and the requirements of safe driving. Safety is incorporated into the U.S. driving culture in many ways. From safety belts and air bags, to motorcycle helmet laws and driving while impaired laws, there is a delicate balance between the government’s role of protecting the driving and pedestrian population through safety laws and regulations and the public’s and the automobile industry’s privacy interests.
For the most part, market forces determined how manufacturers addressed safety issues in their vehicles. There was a good deal of tension between obvious safety hazards and the public’s unwillingness to pay for vehicle modifications or features that appeared to be “optional.” But in the 1960s, a grassroots level movement, led by Ralph Nader and others, sought to inform the public, auto manufacturers, and the government about the serious safety risks in vehicles.
The late 1960s saw the first regulatory measures to make cars safer. For example, the threat of a federal mandate for auto manufacturers to install anchors for front safety belts prompted the industry to install them “voluntarily” as standard equipment. In hearings in 1965, testimony from many physicians resulted in a recommendation that all cars sold in the state of New York would have by 1968 the seventeen safety features already required in federally owned vehicles. Around that time Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, and Washington also conducted hearings on automobile safety.
As of 2002, there are large federal agencies that oversee an enormous array of federal laws and regulations that are intended to safeguard American drivers, passengers, and pedestrians. These are supplemented by many additional laws and regulations in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories and possessions.