By Keith Leonard, Esquire
At some point in your life, you are likely to hear someone talk about the good old days, or how much better things were made when they were young than today. Some might even argue that motor vehicles were made better and safer in the “old days” when compared to the vehicles on the road today. However, when based on the number of fatalities per mile traveled by vehicles, the number of traffic fatalities in the first decade of the 1900s occurred some twenty-five times more frequently than during the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Despite that fact, various people in the automotive industry in the past have claimed that nothing further needs to be done to cars to make them safer. One so-called expert wrote in 1946 that the latest models of vehicles then available were “as safe as science can make them.” Some industry figures at the time also claimed that it was the drivers who had to improve and that the vehicles did not need to be made safer. However, less than a decade later, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association claimed that the interiors of vehicles then being produced were “so poorly constructed from a safety standpoint that it is surprising that anyone escapes from an automobile accident without serious injury.”
The safety features that began to be manufactured in vehicles over the last fifty years are partly due to some changes in thought within the automotive industry and also due to changes in regulation of the industry. In the early 1950s, automobile companies began putting padding in places in cars wherever the driver’s head might hit a hard surface.
During that same decade, seat belts were first introduced as options in cars. However, such a safety feature was not greeted with universal support. In 1958 a publication from Motor Vehicle Research provided that the “seat belt can be dangerous to the average user under most crash conditions” and that the safety issue “was a tool of commercialism used at the expense of human life and injuries.”
The federal government eventually became involved in the vehicle safety cause and Congress adopted the National Highway Traffic Safety Act in 1966. By 1968, cars had to have safety belts with shoulder harnesses. The states followed the federal government’s lead and by 1984 mandatory seat belt use began to take effect in automobiles. In 1970 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was formed as part of the United States Department of Transportation. And despite the foregoing dire statement made in 1958 about seat belts, in 2010 alone the use of seat belts in passenger vehicles is estimated to have saved 12,546 lives.
A related driver restraint safety feature is the airbag, which was first invented for automotive use in 1952. In the early 1970s Ford and General Motors began offering airbags in models of their cars, but that feature was dropped within a few years because of a lack of consumer demand for the product. It would be almost twenty years later before driver side airbags became mandatory in cars (in 1989) and another decade before airbags became mandatory on the passenger side of automobiles (in 1998). Airbags are therefore another safety feature that took quite a few years between innovation and mandatory production in automobiles.
While seat belts and airbags work well within a vehicle to protect its occupants, it is obvious that such protections are limited to larger persons in the car (i.e., adults and older children). What about younger children and babies? The answer to that question led to the development of the child safety seat; a product not manufactured with a car but rather a product manufactured for use in a car. The impact of a collision on a small child can easily lead to tragic results if the child is not in a safety seat or the seat is installed improperly. An unrestrained child can hit the dashboard or windshield in a 20 mph crash with the force of 400 pounds. The first child safety seats (which came out in 1898) were designed to keep a child in the seat of the car and prevent him from falling out of the car. The child safety seats of today are designed to protect the child in one in the event that the car is in an accident.
Currently, all fifty states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring child safety seats for infants in passenger vehicles. And forty-eight states and the District of Columbia have booster seat laws for children who have outgrown the child safety seat. Booster seats are commonly designed for children weighing thirty pounds or more. Under those laws, child safety seats are typically required for all children under eight years of age or weighing less than eighty pounds. However, there are only six states which require seat belts on school buses and in one of those states, only on school buses purchased after September 2010.
We now live in a time where (in Pennsylvania) you can be ticketed for not wearing your seat belt, but where you can safely (at least from the law) ride your motorcycle without a helmet. That is not a statement for or against helmet laws, but rather an example of where the law is not always logical.
While my parents were part of the “Greatest Generation,” I sometimes think my generation might be the luckiest generation. I certainly consider myself to be part of a pretty lucky generation. When I began driving, a gallon of regular (leaded) gasoline was selling for fewer than thirty cents a gallon; I once bought fifty cents worth of gas and got almost two gallons. And I know for sure that I did not have enough seat belts in the car if I had been stopped by the police while driving nine other students to a college party in my 1969 Camaro (and yes it did have bucket seats).
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Remember that laws are constantly changing and are often not uniform throughout the United States. Do not place unqualified reliance on the information in this article. Always contact legal counsel for detailed advice.
If you have a particular issue, law or problem you would like to see addressed in a future column, please contact me at KLeonard@LeonardSciolla.com, or Leonard, Sciolla, Hutchison, Leonard & Tinari, LLP, 215-567-1530.