On September 9, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signs the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act into law. Immediately afterward, he signed the Highway Safety Act. The two bills made the federal government responsible for setting and enforcing safety standards for cars and roads. Unsafe highways, Johnson argued, were a menace to public health: "In this century," Johnson said before he signed the bills, "more than 1,500,000 of our fellow citizens have died on our streets and highways; nearly three times as many Americans as we have lost in all our wars." It was a genuine crisis, and one that the automakers had proven themselves unwilling or unable to resolve. "Safety is no luxury item," the President declared, "no optional extra; it must be a normal cost of doing business."
Individual drivers were beyond the federal government's control--if you wanted to run a red light there was not much LBJ could do to stop you, after all--but by the mid-1960s, many reformers and safety experts (like Ralph Nader, whose book "Unsafe at Any Speed" had been selling briskly for almost two years by the time Johnson signed the NTMVSA) were beginning to argue that there were things the government could do to make the roads less dangerous. Automakers, these safety advocates argued, had the technology and the know-how to build stronger, sturdier cars and trucks that could keep people safe in case of an accident--and could even help prevent accidents altogether.
Though the car companies' lobbyists managed to water down the safety standards in the final bill considerably, the NTMVSA did result in hardier cars: it required seat belts for every passenger, impact-absorbing steering wheels, rupture-resistant fuel tanks, door latches that stayed latched in crashes, side-view mirrors, shatter-resistant windshields and windshield defrosters, lights on the sides of cars as well as the front and back, and "the padding and softening of interior surfaces and protrusions." (For its part, the Highway Safety Act required that roadbuilders install guardrails, better streetlights, and stronger barriers between opposing lanes of traffic.)
By any measure, the NTMVSA has been a success: Since its passage, the law--and especially its seat-belt provisions--has saved hundreds of thousands of lives.