On this day, June 24, 1966, the United States Senate passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act by a unanimous vote. Later that summer the House passed their version of the bill 318-3 and on September 9, 1966, signed by President Johnson, the Act became law.
The origins of the law can be credited to the work of one man: Ralph Nader, an attorney and consumer advocate, who a year earlier had published “Unsafe at Any Speed”, a condemnation of the General Motors Corvair and the American auto industry’s lax safety standards.
In 1965 there were 47,089 auto deaths in the United States, or 5.30 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT). The death rate was 24.235 out of every 100,000 population. The auto fatality rate had risen the past four years an average of 5.625%.
In spite of fierce industry resistance and reported attempts to smear the reputation of Nader, Congress passed the legislation creating the National Highway Safety Bureau, or what eventually became the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The bureau’s first director, William Haddon, developed a scientific approach based on work of a Dr. John E. Gordon. The work suggested that auto accidents behaved like diseases and were dependent on three factors, the host (vehicle), the agent (driver), and the environment in which the agent and host find themselves. They sought to improve safety in all three areas.
NHTSA regulations over the years have mandated safety improvements to automobiles (host): seat and shoulder belts, head rests, energy-absorbent steering columns, rollover protection, dual brakes, shatter-resistant windshields, and improved rear lighting (a center brake light and white backup lights).
NHTSA regulations have mandated actions on human factors (agent): stricter traffic safety laws, mandatory driver’s education, more punitive drunk driving judgments, mandatory seat belt use, and child safety seats.
NHTSA guidelines have suggested environmental improvements: the addition of edge and center-line stripes and reflectors, breakaway signs and utility poles, improved median structures, improved guardrails, grooved pavements, rumble strips, and highway exit crash cushions.
What has all of this work accomplished? According to the NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), in 2014, the last year full statistics are available and comparing to 1967 numbers when the NHTSA began operations, there were 32,675 traffic fatalities, a 36% reduction in absolute numbers. That is 1.08% fatalities per 100 VMT or a reduction of 79%, and 10.25% per 100,000 population or a reduction of 60%. Those are inarguably impressive improvements.
Wouldn't it be great if we could accomplish progress like that with gun deaths in America?
Gun rights activists love to point out that a gun can’t act by itself, that it’s the user that makes a gun bad. As if to say, “Well, that settles it; there shouldn’t be any legislation restricting gun ownership”.
A car can’t be bad by itself either. It requires a key, fuel, registration, insurance, and occasional inspections. And you know what, that car still can’t function, because it needs a driver. It is the combination of car and driver that can make for a lethal cocktail.
However, laws have tried to mitigate the dangers. Drivers must be of a responsible age and have mandatory education. They must pass both written and physical driving tests. They must have good vision, or be restricted. They must obey the laws or be punished in some way. Most would agree these are reasonable requirements.
Shouldn’t drivers of guns demonstrate those same capabilities and good judgment? Gun control, as least sensible gun control, shouldn’t be about restricting all guns from all people. But it should be about making sure someone who is buying a gun has the judgment and good sense not to violate sensible gun management.
If you’re a responsible gun owner, you bought your guns legally, you keep your arms locked safely away from idle or illegal hands, and you’ve educated yourself on the proper operation and maintenance of your weapons. You see good reason for keeping weapons out of the hands of people who have no business owning a firearm.
Oh wait, see that right there is where there seems to be a problem. Strident gun rights activists couldn’t give two beans about those illegal or irresponsible gun owners. They don’t think there should be any kind of mandatory education for something as dangerous as a gun. They don’t think there should be any restrictions on gun ownership at all, and that makes no sense.
Yes, just as no amount of vehicle legislation can remove 100% of the risk of driving on our nation’s highways, no amount of gun control legislation will reduce wrongful firearms deaths to zero. But it could make a difference, and in your life.
If it’s your grandchild, or wife, or friend who survives today because of mandatory child safety seats or backup lights or cell phone restrictions, it’s impossible to prove. If they’re one of the 17,000 plus that were not killed on our highways in 2014 because of the passage of the NHTSA, Mr. Ryan, you can thank your lucky stars there was bipartisanship in 1966.
So Mr. McConnell, isn’t it worth trying to save a few lives from being firearms victims by adopting mandatory gun owner education, or tougher background checks, or restricting magazine sizes? Isn’t it at least reasonable to sit at the table and see what you can cooperatively create to save one life?
Make it personal. Because I can assure you, if one of your family members were to be the victim of firearm violence, thoughts and prayers, and a check from Mr. LaPierre won’t make you feel any better.
I've grown weary of thoughts and prayers. I think it's time to try something else.
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