1966: Two Landmark Traffic Safety Bills are Signed into Law

September 9, 1966

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law both the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act during a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House. Approximately 200 people were on hand for the ceremony, which began at around 1:00 p.m. These attendees included Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate whose best-selling 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed helped fuel widespread demand for better protections for those traveling on the nation’s highways.

“In this century, more than 1,500,000 of our fellow citizens have died on our streets and highways, nearly three times as many Americans as we have lost in all our wars,” said Johnson during the ceremony.  “We are going to cut down this senseless loss of lives. We are going to cut down the pointless injury. We are going to cut down the heartbreak.”

The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Act, which Johnson signed into law first, included provisions enabling the federal government to establish and administer national safety standards for cars starting with 1968 models.  “We are going to assure our citizens that every car they buy is as safe as modern knowledge knows how to build it,” according to Johnson. 

The Highway Safety Act focused on state-level efforts to more fully address such issues as driver education and licensing; vehicle registration, operation, and inspection; highway design and maintenance; and accident investigation and prevention. Each state was required to establish its own federally approved highway safety program or incur a 10 percent reduction in federal-aid highway construction funds. 

During this part of the ceremony, Johnson talked about “a raging epidemic of highway death” and the need to combat that threat.  He said, “Through the Highway Safety Act, we are going to find out more about highway disease – and we are going to find out how to cure it.”

After the signing of both bills, many of those in attendance made their way through a reception line so that Johnson could give each of them pens as keepsakes for this significant occasion in U.S. transportation history. Two White House aides standing near Johnson played important roles in this part of the ceremony. The first aide held a supply of boxed pens, and the second aide repeatedly grabbed pens from that stash and handed one after another to Johnson so that he could present them to each person in line.

By the time Nader reached the president, however, there were not any more pens left to distribute. Nader had to settle instead for just a handshake from Johnson. Fortunately, Nader didn’t remain pen-less for long. One of the White House aides tracked down another pen and gave that to Nader. It was a goodwill gesture that made perfect sense, considering that Nader did more than many people to make that September afternoon’s Rose Garden event a reality.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

Additional information on the enactment of both the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act is available at https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/highwayhistory/moment/highway_safety_breakthrough.cfm and https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-the-signing-the-national-traffic-and-motor-vehicle-safety-act-and-the-highway

For more information on milestones in U.S. highway safety, please check out https://www.bts.gov/archive/publications/passenger_travel_2016/tables/half

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