Sunday, December 1, 2013
Up to this point, over a million Americans had died on the nation’s roads and highways. The general consensus was that it was all on account of driver error and / or that the drivers in question were not following the laws. Surely, it was thought, that must be the cause because cars couldn’t be built any better. Automotive writer James Crate wrote in 1993 that from the birth of the automobile up until 1956, the auto had been wholly unmolested by federal laws primarily for a reason that was left over from the days when horses were the primary mode of personal transportation. The then-motoring public and the federal government considered the automobile a personal item, much as a horse had been, and thus was an inviolate part of a person’s way of life and such a personal artifact should not come under the scrutiny of some government law or entity. That began to change on July 15, 1956 when Congressman Kenneth Roberts, an Alabama Democrat opened the first session of the first House subcommittee on traffic safety by proceeding directly to the subject of automotive design standards. The auto industry was not ready for Congressman Roberts. They weren’t ready to be asked if the vehicles they were putting on the road might be designed better and safer, to first help mitigate accidents and / or to reduce damage severity and save lives. The motoring public, at the time, was apathetic. Even Robert’s fellow legislators and other federal personnel were apathetic at the least and at the worst, condescending. Roberts was not re-elected. However, during his tenure, he managed to get H.R. 1341 passed which set safety standards for those vehicles purchased by the US government. At the time the federal government purchased about 35,000 vehicles a year, a proverbial “drop in the bucket” in the total scheme of things. But it set a precedent, and got people and the government to give vehicle safety and design another look. Coincidentally, this was the same year that Ford tried selling safety as a vehicle feature. An optional safety package came with seat belts, padded dash and padded sun visors among other items. (Seat belts would not be federally mandated until 1964) Fewer than 2,000 safety packages were sold.