1968: U.S. Lawmakers Introduce Automotive Safety Standards

James Kraus

Unsafe At Any Speed, Ralph Nader. First Edition; November, 1965.

Fifty years ago, new 1968 autos sat glistened in showrooms across America. These were a bit different from previous new cars; for the first time in history their design was heavily influenced by U.S. government regulations. New federal legislation required reductions of harmful vehicular emissions, and increased safety for drivers and passengers. Today Auto Universum looks back at the history of automotive safety design and the background of the numerous safety features that greeted new U.S. car buyers in 1968. 

Prior to the 1960s, there was little concern over automotive safety. The public preferred to celebrate the joys of individual mobility and suppressed any thoughts of possible death or injury.

1937 Plymouth.

As far back as 1937, Plymouth featured an instrument panel with recessed knobs, ignition key receptacle and glovebox latch, as well as padded front seat backs for occupant safety; but buyers seemed nonplussed and these innovative features quickly fell by the wayside.

In the 1950s engineers at Ford began studying occupant safety and in 1956 the company offered a wide suite of Lifeguard Design safety features including a dished steering wheel, reinforced door latches, padded sunvisors, an available padded instrument panel, and optional seat belts.

Ford’s new optional seat belts, 1956.

Optional Ford padded instrument panel cover, 1956.

Ford dished safety steering wheel, 1956.

In 1957 Rolls-Royce adopted a dual-circuit brake system, but the decade came to a close with no other manufacturer following in their footsteps.

The leading proponent of automotive safety within the industry at the time was Hungarian engineer Béla Barényi at Mercedes-Benz. Several of his ideas were featured in the new W111 Fintail of 1960. The new model incorporated front and rear crumple zones to absorb impact energy based on patents Mercedes was granted in 1951, a safety padded steering wheel hub, and instrument panel padding along both top and bottom.

Early crash testing at Daimler-Benz.

Mercedes-Benz 220 SE with safety-padded instrument panel and steering wheel.

Recessed door handles, soft control knobs, padded armrests and door hardware, and the introduction of the classic Mercedes-Benz conical-pin fully-interlocking door latches rounded out a generous complement of safety features.

Mercedes-Benz conical-pin door latch.

In 1959, Volvo standardized three-point belts in the front seats of the 122. Three years later, Volkswagen and a number of other European manufacturers began installing pre-threaded three-point belt mounts front and rear on their 1962 models. The same year saw Cadillac and Rambler introduce dual-circuit brake systems split front-to-rear. Saab followed suit in 1964 with a twin-circuit system split diagonally so that in any hydraulic failure scenario there would be one all-important front brake still functioning.

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Following Ford’s lead, VW Introduced padded sun visors and a dished steering wheel for 1960.

While these were signs of progress, they unfortunately tended to be isolated examples with few competitors following suit. As an example, Volkswagen adopted Ford-style padded sunvisors for 1960, but General Motors didn’t offer them until 1966.

Title Card from Mechanized Death, 1961

Meanwhile, a new genre of films sprang up depicting the dangers of driving. Designed to be shown to high school students, films like Signal 30 (1959), Mechanized Death (1961), Wheels of Tragedy (1963) and Red Asphalt (1964) displayed unflinching footage of crumpled steel and bloodied, maimed and dismembered bodies.

Introductory text from Signal 30, 1959

The public slowly began to view increasing highway carnage as a major problem and this change in attitude crystallized upon the publication of Unsafe At Any Speed by heretofore unknown attorney Ralph Nader in late 1965. The book was panned by the automotive industry as well as car enthusiasts; few of whom to this day ever saw the book, much less read it. The general pubic however, devoured the book, sending to the best-seller list in 1966.

Ralph’s timing was impeccable. The citizenry was increasingly dismayed by ever-increasing highway fatalities, and 1966 set a new casualty record: over 50,000 Americans were killed in automobile accidents, exceeding the total number of U.S. soldiers that died in Vietnam from 1960-1969.

Ralph Nader, 1965. Note Studebaker Avanti in foreground.

Unsafe At Any Speed documented 1953 Buick Roadmaster power brake failures, pre-1964 Corvair handling issues, unsafe safety glass, shatter-prone cast-aluminium GM door hinges, unyielding interior surfaces, cyclist-impaling tailfins and other engineering and design lapses.

Last but not least, Ralph highlighted the lack of responsible recall protocol. In the case of the aforementioned Buick brake problem, GM instructed dealers not to inform owners of likely impending brake failure until improved parts became available – a full ten months later. In addition, dealers were discouraged from contacting owners by mail to avoid leaving an incriminating paper trail.

Distraught over increasing highway carnage and emboldened by points raised in Unsafe At Any Speed, public outcry reached congress. The beleaguered legislative body was goaded into action, passing legislation establishing the Department Of Transportation. President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law on September 9, 1966.

Issues raised in Unsafe At Any Speed were addressed with unusual rapidity and implemented quickly. The first set of rules took effect exactly fifty years ago, January 1968; less than fifteen months after the agency was established.

Most of the new regulations simply codified best practice; requiring all vehicles to have padded instrument panels, recessed inside door handles, non-rigid armrests, breakaway inside mirrors, labeled controls, twin-circuit brakes, two-speed wipers covering a minimum percentage of the windscreen area, a left-hand outside mirror, reversing lamps and four-way hazard flashers.

1967 versus 1968. ’68 VW instrument panel features padded surface, pictograph labeling on controls, shift pattern graphic and brake-circuit failure warning lamp; all required by the new legislation.

Other regulations required new features: energy-absorbing steering columns, a warning lamp for brake circuit depressurization, minimal post-collision fuel spillage, front and rear side marker lights or reflectors, and windscreens with thicker-interlayer safety glass and improved retention. Finally, all vehicles had to survive a 30 mph (48 kph) crash into a concrete barrier demonstrating survivability of standardized test dummies in the front seats.

Energy-absorbing steering column

While the regulations were earmarked for January of 1968, many were instituted beginning as early as 1966 due to the efforts of the U.S. government General Services Administration. The GSA purchased vehicles for the all the various federal agencies and began requiring new cars to have some of the upcoming features in order for to qualify for consideration under the bidding process for government fleet procurement.

The wide scope of the regulations and the rapidity of their enactment put some automobile manufacturers on the ropes. AMC were unable to come up with a workable energy-absorbing collapsible steering column and had to source them from the Saginaw division of General Motors.

Changes required to meet the regulations often involved copious design work and costly tooling changes. In addition, just the process and expense of certifying cars to the new regulations was onerous. As a result, many European firms that had been selling small but steady numbers of cars in the U.S. pared their model range or simply withdrew from the market. Overnight, the Alfa Romeo 2600, BMC Mini, Fiat 500 and 600, Renault Caravelle, Simca 1000 and the entire Lancia and NSU ranges disappeared from U.S. showrooms.

While most manufacturers executed the new regulations fairly well, some initial attempts were a bit clumsy.

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Passengers riding in 1968-1971 MGBs had to stare at this enormous black loaf of bread, BMCs idea of a padded instrument panel.

The giant foam carbuncle in the center of this steering wheel was Ford’s rather primitive 1967 attempt at an energy-absorbing steering column.

1968 U.S. market Porsches had these ungainly reflectors screwed onto their flanks, even though the existing lamp units had plenty of room to incorporate them. This embarrassing gaff was rectified the following year.

A few manufacturers were quite creative in implementing the new side marker requirement. this 1968 Oldsmobile 98 has the rear side-lamps neatly incorporated into the Olds Rocket emblem.

After the deluge of changes required for 1968 models, new regulations trickled out more slowly. Driver and passenger head restraints were required for 1969; for 1970 both side marker lights and reflectors were required, and rear reflectors had to be of a minimum size. 1973 models had to pass side-impact tests leading to the adoption of side-guard beams in doors; interior materials had to meet a flammability standard, and one-piece inertial-reel seat and shoulder belts were mandated.

As safety started becoming marketable, GM began phasing in side-guard door beams on selected 1970 models.

As the U.S market was the world’s largest at the time, many of the required features became standard worldwide as it was cheaper and simpler for manufacturers to make them universal rather than build and inventory two versions of the same parts. Thus many elements of safer design, including energy-absorbing steering columns, padded armrests and recessed door handles quickly spread around the globe.

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