THE BLOG

Auto Safety: Past Is Prologue

05/13/2015 05:28 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2016

It doesn't take a comprehensive examination of American culture to notice the all-too-commonplace glorification of war. Violent war movies and television shows routinely make big bucks for Hollywood. Video games called Call of Duty and Battlefield sell millions of copies each year. Even history books are filled with stories of "great" battles won and lost. There are even devoted Civil War reenactors!

We are quick to recognize and commemorate wars that took enormous amounts of human lives through acts of intentional violence from opposing sides. It is unfortunately quite rare to see the same public attention dedicated to campaigns where preserving human life was the only true objective.

Michael R. Lemov's new book is about such a conflict -- called "the equivalent of war" by the U.S. Supreme Court -- which was fought not with guns or bombs but by concerned citizens, safety advocates, and responsive legislators in Congress. The new book, Car Safety Wars: One Hundred Years of Technology, Politics and Death (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015), is a comprehensive history of the movement for safer cars over the course of a century. Lemov knows his stuff: In addition to being a talented author and historian, he served as the general counsel of the National Commission on Product Safety, as the chief counsel of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House of Representatives, and as a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Car Safety Wars is prime reading for anyone interested in automobiles and their development, the consumer safety movement, or the mechanisms of democratic government, or for those who are simply curious about the origins of the many auto safety features like seatbelts and airbags that now protect countless lives.

Here are some statistics to put the critical importance of auto safety into perspective. Over 3.5 million people have died due to automobile accidents since the first cars took to the roads in the early 1900s. In the 1960s, nearly 50,000 people died each year in car crashes, and millions more were injured; that's nearly the same number of U.S. military deaths in the entire Vietnam War.

In one noteworthy chapter of his book, Lemov details the background and life's work of U.S. Rep. Kenneth Roberts of Alabama, who was a true pioneer of safety legislation:

Roberts introduced and pushed to enactment legislation mandating that household refrigerators be manufactured with safety locks on the inside of the door, so that children who might become trapped in them could push the door open. ... He introduced legislation requiring the labeling of poisonous household substances, promoting public-educational television, and bills providing for health care for migrant workers and Native Americans. Roberts was a congressman, it seemed, who was instinctively concerned about the well-being of a wide range of people.

(Many of these proposals later became law as part of larger pieces of legislation.)

In 1956, Roberts was the first representative or senator to tackle highway and automobile safety when he introduced a bill to establish a special subcommittee to study the growing crisis of injury and death on America's roads.

The auto safety movement truly took off in a serious way with the congressional outrage following General Motors' clumsy attempt to dig up dirt on me before and after publication of my book Unsafe at Any Speed in November 1965. The extensive congressional hearings that followed in the Senate and the House brought to light overwhelming evidence that the auto companies were knowingly suppressing the use of long-available safety devices.

Lemov writes:

During the first six decades of the twentieth century the American automobile industry seemed wedded to the idea that safe design was not its responsibility. There was no public demand, it was said, for safer automobile design. Nor did the industry seem to think it had much responsibility to inform the public about the risks of vehicle design and the omissions such as lap and shoulder belts.

Safety was not deemed a major concern in these early industry days, despite the fact that the knowhow existed: Patents for airbag technology were first issued as early as the 1950s. Instead style and horsepower were favored over things like safety and fuel efficiency. Airbags did not become commonplace until the late 1980s. Some younger readers might actually not recall a time when crash test ratings were not a fiercely highlighted aspect of car advertisements.

The seminal 1966 federal safety law that resulted from the auto safety movement has since saved 600,000 lives. The highway death toll has dropped from roughly 50,000 deaths per year in the 1960s to roughly 30,000 deaths per year today, even though far more vehicles are now traveling far more miles. Together, highway death and injury rates have been lessened by 70 percent.

There are unfortunately few national problems that are less serious today than they were 50 years ago. The fact that our roads are safer is a testament to the power of public sentiment, citizen advocacy and a government that acts to promote the welfare of its people, not the interests of big business. In this sense, the "car safety war" is certainly a war worth studying, reflecting on, and celebrating.

However, the battle still rages on. A record 50 million cars were recalled in 2014 for safety defects. With recent developments regarding defective ignition switches from General Motors, defective airbags from Takada Industries, exploding Jeep Grand Cherokees from Fiat Chrysler, Toyota's sudden acceleration, and many other dangerous defects that have been uncovered in the past few years, it's clear that vigilant watchdogs are needed now as much as ever. Fortunately, we presently have some law enforcement tools to make the auto companies correct their deficiencies or face penalties and lawsuits -- both good deterrents.