By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on Sept. 9, 2016
Five decades ago, Ralph Nader was losing friends in car crashes at a rapid rate.
Nader, a former third-party presidential candidate, said the tragic deaths in his life inspired him to write a book investigating the dangers of automobiles, which prompted Congress to enact the most sweeping auto safety law in U.S. history.
Since that landmark legislation, the annual number of traffic fatalities has greatly declined.
But 50 years later, Nader is still fighting for a provision dropped from the bill that he says could dramatically reform the auto industry: allowing manufacturers to be jailed by the federal government for covering up safety defects.
“That was the one part we lost,” Nader told The Hill in a telephone interview Friday, reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the law’s enactment. “That was a serious loss.”
Nader’s best-selling book “Unsafe at Any Speed” exposed automakers' reluctance to implement potentially life-saving features, such as seat belts, at a time when there were no federal safety requirements for U.S. automobiles.
The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, signed into law by President Johnson in 1966, set mandatory federal safety standards for vehicles and drivers, and established the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
“It was a big eye-opener for Congress,” Nader said.
Over 50,000 people died on U.S. roadways the year the bill was signed into law, according to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. NHTSA laws and programs are estimated to have saved over 453,000 lives since 1975.
But recent numbers show a break in the historical trend of fewer traffic fatalities occurring per year, with vehicle-related deaths climbing 7.2 percent, to 35,092 people, last year.
“You can’t say it’s because we’re coming out of the recession,” Nader said. “Something’s going on here. That’s a historic reversal.”
Nader says there are a number of measures that could help fight the trend. He advocated for a bill from Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson (Fla.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Ed Markey (Mass.) that would impose criminal penalties on automakers for concealing information about safety defects and eliminate the cap on the NHTSA’s ability to fine automakers who fail to comply with recall regulations.
The NHTSA fined Japanese part manufacturer Takata Corp. for not immediately reporting a known airbag safety defect that has led to 10 deaths, hundreds of injuries and the largest auto recall in U.S. history.
“Meager fines do nothing more than change the costs of doing business and provide no meaningful deterrence for continuing reprehensible and irresponsible behavior that costs countless preventable injuries and lives,” Blumenthal and Markey said in a statement.
Nader also pointed to laws requiring helmets for motorcyclists, rest breaks for truck drivers and stronger enforcement of laws prohibiting cellphone use behind the wheel.
But perhaps the greatest auto safety revolution on the horizon since the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act could come in the form of self-driving cars, though Nader acknowledges that widespread autonomous vehicles are still decades away.
The Department of Transportation is expected to soon unveil state guidance on driverless cars and issue a rule later this year requiring all new cars to have vehicle-to-vehicle communication.
The focus on autonomous vehicles represents a shift from protecting people in a crash, with things like seat belts and airbags, to avoiding a collision altogether, with features like automatic braking and blind-spot detection.
But Nader worries that the way federal regulators and Congress operate today could impede major efforts to improve safety; the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act went into effect less than a year after Nader’s book was published.
“And it wasn’t like there was a consensus in the beginning. There was horrible opposition to it,” Nader says. “But can you imagine this happening today?”