By the mid-1950s, more than a million Americans had been in car accidents and died on the nation’s roads and highways.
The general consensus was that it was all on account of driver error and/or the drivers in question not following the laws. Surely, that must be the cause because, it was thought, cars couldn’t be built any better … could they? Many in the industry thought they were already at the epitome of automotive design and safety---there was nowhere else for automotive technology to go!
Automotive writer James Crate wrote in 1993 that from the birth of the automobile up until 1956, the auto had been largely unmolested by federal laws largely because those ideas were 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. Thus, it was viewed as an inviolate part of a person’s way of life that 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 their severity and save lives.
The motoring public, at the time, was apathetic. Even Roberts’ fellow legislators and other federal personnel were apathetic at best and condescending at worst. 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 U.S. 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.