The Evolution of Traffic Safety Laws

Written by Carly Hallman

For thousands of years, mankind found ways of transporting themselves for survival. Transportation has always impacted the way humans interacted with each other. The advent of the automobile revolutionized this interaction by creating new opportunities that would benefit us economically, socially, and recreationally. As a result, it changed the American landscape and life as we knew it. The benefits of mobility came with new risks that also changed the way we viewed transportation. Automobiles gave individuals the power to transport themselves at unmatched speed and power. In the early 20th century, Americans began to see an increased rate of traffic deaths and injuries that caused many to express concern. Physicians, safety experts, engineers, and journalists convened to find out the cause of the accidents, injuries, and deaths that came with all of this traffic. Cars and their use were given a fresh look, and efforts arose that would retain the right to drive a car while reducing the tragic consequences of getting behind the wheel. It took decades to design traffic laws that would control driver behavior and increase safety features that would minimize these risk factors.

In the early 1910s, traffic safety experts brainstormed ways of improving driver behavior. During this decade, there were increased instances of driver misconduct, such as speeding and reckless driving. Drunk driving was also a big problem that resulted in multiple collisions and fatalities. Unfortunately, this became a problem for pedestrians. These new problems required a social response for controlling the way people behaved when they got in the driver’s seat. The National Safety Council further addressed these issues during the 1920s by compiling accident statistics and holding conferences. They went on a mission to increase public awareness that would promote careful driving. Early efforts arose to control driver behavior through various traffic laws and traffic signals. In 1923, Garrett Morgan patented a traffic signal that stopped vehicles in both directions to change the direction of traffic flow. This developed into what it is commonly known as a stoplight. Municipalities also introduced strict rules and fines. They also instituted criminal punishment for severe offenses, such as drunk driving. Americans failed to acknowledge technological flaws until the late 1920s. Manufacturers eventually addressed design flaws that compromised safety, such as adding four-wheel brakes and shatter-resistant windshields.

In the 1930s, automakers developed a market response to actively promote new safety features, such as all-steel frames and hydraulic brakes. Auto makers assured motorists that the automobiles of the time were completely safe. At the same time, industry representatives argued that licensing drivers, improving roads, and regulating traffic would prevent accidents. Auto makers failed to install seat belts, energy-absorbing columns, and padded dashboards even though these devices existed during the 1930s.

During the early 1950s, physicians and university professors introduced a scientific approach to resolving auto safety problems through crash testing. Crash testing at university sites pinpointed common design flaws. In addition, crash testing revealed the causes and effects of bodily impact when a collision occurred. These tests convinced people that seat belts and padded dashboards would decrease the number of fatalities that came with a head-on collision. Manufacturers introduced those safety features in most cars by 1956.

In the late 1950s to early 1960s, elected officials studied the scientific findings from university crash tests, which prompted many state legislatures to pass laws that required seat belts and seat belt anchors in new cars. This new initiative grew into a government response to automobile safety. In 1966, Congress authorized the federal government to get involved with auto safety standards for new cars. Two years later, seat belts, padded dashboards, and other safety features became mandatory equipment in all new vehicles.

Motorists defied these traffic safety laws at first; however, by the 1990s, seat belts became widely accepted. This was due in part to safety campaigns that emphasized the importance of buckling up. In addition, state laws forced motorists to comply with mandatory seat belt laws. By 1998, the federal government also required every motor vehicle to have airbags as standard equipment. Auto manufacturers forced technological change that would make the automobile itself a first line of defense in an accident well into the 21st century.

Traffic Safety Law History

Traffic Signal Pioneers

Traffic Safety Laws