On this day in 1966, the United States Senate votes 76-0 for the passage of what will become the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson the following September, the act created the nation’s first mandatory federal safety standards for motor vehicles.
The origins of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act can be traced directly of the efforts of a young lawyer and consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who in 1965 published the bestselling “Unsafe at Any Speed,” a sweeping critique of the American auto industry and its unsafe products. (Nader singled out the Corvair, produced by General Motors, as a particular object of scorn.) Nader’s book fueled the growing concern of Americans regarding the ever-increasing number of traffic accidents and fatalities on the nation’s roads. On June 24, 1966, Nader was in the Senate gallery as the bill was guided to passage, less than five hours after reaching the floor. Shortly after the Senate vote, President Johnson issued a statement urging the House to pass the bill, which he called “landmark legislation.”
“For the first time in our history,” Johnson declared, “we can mount a truly comprehensive attack on the rising toll of death and destruction on the nation’s highways that last year alone claimed 50,000 lives….We can no longer tolerate such anarchy on wheels.” The Senate also passed an companion bill from the Johnson administration authorizing expenditures of some $465 million over three years for state and city traffic safety programs, including driver education and licensing, auto inspection, highway design, traffic control and enforcement of traffic laws. The House subsequently passed the legislation by another unanimous vote, and Johnson signed it into law on September 9, 1966.
In its final form, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act established an agency under the U.S. secretary of commerce that would set safety standards for all new motor vehicles beginning with the 1968 model year; that agency became the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the Department of Transportation. Among the first safety standards adopted by the agency were seat belts, windshield wipers, glare reduction on interior and exterior surfaces, padded visors and dashboards, recessed control knobs, outside mirrors, impact-absorbing steering columns, dual braking systems and standardized bumper heights.