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Car Safety Wars: One Hundred Years of Technology, Politics, and Death

Author(s):Lemov, Michael R.
Reviewer(s):O'Toole, Randal

Published by EH.Net (March 2016)

Michael R. Lemov, Car Safety Wars: One Hundred Years of Technology, Politics, and Death. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015. xvi + 254 pp. $45 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-61147-745-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Randal O’Toole, Cato Institute.

To Michael Lemov, the former general counsel for the National Commission on Product Safety, the history of automobile safety centers around passage and implementation of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. Before 1966, he says, automobiles unfettered by federal regulation were a deadly menace, killing growing numbers of people every year and maiming many more. After 1966, the National Highway Safety Bureau (now the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration) issued regulations requiring auto manufacturers to add seatbelts, padded dashboards, and other safety devices to automobiles. By 1972, these new rules began to have an effect: auto fatalities peaked in that year and have declined in almost every year since. Thus, in Lemov’s view, federal auto safety legislation was a great success, proving that government, and in particular the federal government, can work. Lemov’s book consists mainly of anecdotes about gruesome auto accidents, the stories of crusaders promoting safety legislation before 1966, and the hurdles faced by the bureaucrats attempting to implement it after 1966.

The truth, is more complicated. Lemov never mentions that fatality rates — that is, auto fatalities per mile of driving — declined nearly as fast in the decades before passage and implementation of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act as afterwards. Peaking in 1909, at 45.3 people per hundred million vehicle miles, by 1960, fatality rates had fallen nearly 90 percent to 5.1 people per hundred million miles. In the decade of the 1950s, before the law was passed, fatality rates fell by 3.5 percent per year; in the 1970s, they declined by 3.6 percent per year.  (See for these statistics.)

The small increase in the decline suggests that federal regulation may have saved lives, but far fewer than implied by Lemov. Unmentioned by Lemov, the reason total fatalities declined after 1972 was not safety regulations but higher fuel prices that slowed the growth in miles of driving to less than the rate of decline of fatalities.

Lemov shows that federal regulators worked hard to make automobiles safer for occupants in the event of an accident, so the lack of significant results seems perplexing. An explanation was identified as early as 1975 by University of Chicago economist Sam Peltzman.  Peltzman (1975) realized that increased safety for occupants would lead drivers to engage in riskier behavior. That risky behavior led to more accidents, and while auto occupants were more protected, those accidents killed more pedestrians and others not in the cars.  Peltzman’s results have been duplicated by other researchers with respect to more recent regulations, such as the mandatory seat-belt requirement (Chirinko and Harper, 1993) and air bags (Peterson, Hoffer and Millner, 1995). Yet Lemov never mentions Peltzman or similar research. Instead, he measures the success of federal regulation solely by the fact that the law was passed and the rules were written, not in the number of lives they saved.

Lemov also fails to mention research showing that safety regulations added about $800 to the price of a new car in 1982 (Crandall et al., 1986). Since a typical car in that year cost around $8,000, the safety rules increased auto prices by about 10 percent, with a larger percentage increase for lower-priced cars.

To justify this unacknowledged cost, Lemov frequently cites Ralph Nader’s claim that automobile executives believed that “safety doesn’t sell,” so they made no effort to make cars safer. This claim relies on several examples, including the 1948 Tucker Torpedo, which Preston Tucker promoted as a “safety car”; the Kaiser Manhattan, which was advertised in 1953 as the safest car on the road; and the 1956 Ford, which included “lifeguard safety” features including a recessed steering wheel and extra secure doors. Tucker and Kaiser did poorly in the marketplace, but Lemov doesn’t mention that they failed for reasons other than safety. Tucker was underfunded and never got to mass production. Kaiser turned to the safety issue out of desperation because his aging styles were outsold by more established manufacturers. Meanwhile, Ford’s safety campaign was hardly the failure some claim: its sales increased from 85 percent of Chevrolet’s sales in 1955 to 90 percent in 1956, and it continued advertising safety improvements in 1957 when its sales exceeded Chevrolet’s. Far from being penalized for the campaign, as Lemov claims, Robert McNamara became president of the company in 1960.

All else being equal, safety does sell. Air bags sold by the millions before they were required in all automobiles. Companies such as Volvo and Subaru successfully built their cars and advertising campaigns around safety issues. The rapid decline in fatality rates from 1909 to 1960 suggests that manufacturers were improving auto safety during those years.

One of the things the federal government did under the 1966 law was test cars for crash safety, giving consumers an objective measure of how safe each car was. This could have been done privately, and in fact has been done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety since 1995. If the federal government had done nothing more than test cars and publicize the results, it might have produced as much of a safety benefit as the regulations without burdening the economy with the extra costs. Well-design tests could have given manufacturers incentives to find new ways to make cars safe that were more effective or less costly than those prescribed by federal regulators.

Every automobile death is a tragedy, so it is worth asking how auto safety improved in the decades before federal involvement; which regulations worked and which resulted in riskier behavior; and which regulations were most cost-effective. By ignoring these questions and effectively claiming that federal involvement alone is responsible for safer automobiles, Lemov has produced a book that is little more than a glorification of government regulation and bureaucracy.


Chirinko, Bob and Edward P. Harper. 1993. “Buckle Up or Slow Down? New Estimates of Offsetting Behavior and Their Implications for Automobile Safety Regulation,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 12: 2, pp. 270-296.

Crandall, Robert et al. 1986.  Regulating the Automobile.  Washington: Brookings Institution.

Peltzman, Sam. 1975.  “The Effects of Automobile Safety Regulation,” Journal of Political Economy, 83: 4, pp. 677-725.

Peterson, Steven, George Hoffer and Edward Millner. 1995. “Are Drivers of Air-Bag-Equipped Cars More Aggressive? A Test of the Offsetting Behavior Hypothesis,” Journal of Law and Economics, 38: 2, pp. 251-64.

Randal O’Toole ( is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do about It (Cato Institute, 2010).

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Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII