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A History of Traffic Safety Laws

Since the beginning of mankind’s existence, transportation has been an essential tool for survival. Moving from place to place quicker became one of the most important dilemmas humans faced. Walking was great, but how could we explore? We needed something better. Ships came and ruled the seas as they do to this day. But on land, we were still moving slowly. The horse-and-chariot then came flying onto the scene. Eventually, the framework for the internal combustion engine was laid out. To this day, that invention would fuel the rest of our reality. It enabled opportunities to grow economically and socially, while allowing freedom for people.

The streets of the United States were utter chaos when the automobile began being mass produced in the 1900s. Prior to that time, the streets belonged to pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages. It was a simple time, where people and moving vehicles operated on the same road. Everything seemed harmonious, but things needed to be faster. The automobile was the answer.

Once cars began to be available to the common man, they swarmed streets like an army of ants. Roads were a disaster, and operating a vehicle was one of the deadliest things you could do. It wasn’t long before regulations needed to be put into place. People were driving recklessly, driving drunk, and largely doing whatever they wished when they were behind the wheel. Try to think back to a time when there was no asphalt, no traffic lights, no signs, no road lines, and no police. The outcome was a lawless frenzy, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Finally, a book was written to govern automobile usage in America.


In 1901, Connecticut noticed the issues that automobiles were causing in their towns. It became the first state to implement statewide traffic laws. The new laws it presented regulated all motor vehicles. The laws included only speed limits, though; in cities, it was 12 mph and on country roads, it was 15 mph. In the following years, some simple things like parking meters and one-way roads were also introduced.


A man named William Phelps Eno is referred to as “the father of traffic safety”. Before Eno, there were traffic safety laws in place, but they were ignored by nearly everyone. Eno introduced the world to the earliest road safety and traffic control laws. He published a book called Street Traffic Regulation and would continue to be an ambassador for road safety until his death in 1945. In the 1903 book, he wrote about a memory he had of him and his mother caught in a traffic jam in 1867. He was just a boy but remembered the day vividly; he said in his writings, “There were only about a dozen horses and carriages involved, and all that was needed was a little order to keep the traffic moving. Yet, nobody knew exactly what to do.” His ideas would be the groundwork for the safety and traffic laws we know today.


In 1930, one of the most important safety inventions in history was made: the introduction of the three-way traffic light. The traffic light was initially invented in 1912 by Lester Wire. Wire was a police officer in Utah who used red and green lights to signal to drivers. In 1914, the first light was installed to keep traffic moving smoothly. The traffic light was not completely doing its job, though; only two lights regulating three to four directions of vehicles was not enough.

In 1930, the first three-way light was used. It contained the modern-day system we now use. Green means go, yellow means slow, and red means stop. This seemed to have a huge impact on the safety of driving.


For the next 30 odd years after the introduction of the traffic light, much of the adjustments made were small and working gradually. Many of the safety inventions made in that period were within vehicles, not on the roads. The seat belt, airbags, and padded dashboards were all implemented into vehicles in that time.

Crashes were still an enormous problem in the U.S. Something needed to be done to bring safety to the roads and decrease the accident rates. In 1966, a momentous occasion in car accident laws was at hand. The Department of Transportation was created by Congress and approved by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The DOT, which is a powerhouse in traffic safety today, set out to enhance the quality of life for American people. Their mission was to “ensure a fast, safe, efficient, and convenient transportation system”.


After the DOT was created, it began working on making the country a safer place for drivers. In 1970, it established the Highway Safety Act. The goal of this act was to carry out safety programs throughout the country. One of the first orders of business was creating the NHTSA. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was responsible for reducing deaths, injuries, and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes. It accomplished its goals by setting and enforcing safety standards within vehicles and on roadways. In 2020, the NHTSA is the leading group in ensuring public safety for drivers.


In 1974, the national maximum speed limit was set at 55 mph. By this time, some cars were capable of going 150 mph. Speeding was an enormous issue that the NHTSA did not take lightly. Though the speed limit on interstates is more than 55 mph today, the majority of highways and roads still abide by the maximum speed limit that was created in 1974.


In the 1960s and 1970s, seat belts were produced in nearly every vehicle. However, they were hardly used. Many people found them unnecessary, and it resulted in an act of legislature. In 1984, New York passed the first U.S. law which required seat belt use in vehicles. Police officers were now allowed to give citations to drivers for not wearing a seatbelt. This worked to an extent but was just the beginning in seat belt reinforcement.


Driving drunk had been an issue since the beginning of the motor vehicle. In 1910, the first laws were presented to penalize people for driving under the influence. For decades, the laws were not enforced well enough. In 1998, all 50 states created Zero Tolerance Laws for drivers under 21 years old.

Later, in 2005, all states had implemented the 0.8 BAC legal limit for drivers over the age of 21. This was one of the biggest steps in roadways safety in many years.


“Click it or Ticket”. We all know this adage now, but in 2003, it was just being familiarized. The phrase was used as a marketing tactic to get people to buckle their seat belts. More importantly though, it was a nationwide warning. Lack of seat belt usage was an overwhelming problem. Most people still didn’t pay much attention to them. It wasn’t until 2003 that the seat belt regulations began being strictly enforced.


By 2009, cell phones were everywhere. They were being used at all times, especially while driving. Distracted driving was becoming a major issue in the country. Whether it was the use of those cell phones, eating, or messing with things in the back seat, people were not paying attention to the road. Ray LaHood, the U.S. Transportation Secretary, and the Obama Administration set forth actions to limit distraction while operating a motor vehicle. Though these actions helped, today, distracted driving and texting while driving are persistent issues. Technology continues to advance, making cell phones even more impressive. The DOT and the NHTSA continue to fight the battle of distracted driving.


The year is now 2020. Safety and traffic regulations have come a long way since William Eno’s book in 1903. Cars contain some of the most advanced technology in history. Yet for some reason, more than 6 million car accidents happen every year. Each day, 90 people die due to an auto accident. The reasons for this are up for debate. There are more people on the roads than ever before, which is definitely a primary cause. Things like distracted driving, speeding, and reckless/negligent driving play a role as well. The laws and regulations are in place, but it is up to us to drive safely and obey the law.

If you’ve been in an accident because a driver wasn’t adhering to safety regulations, you could be entitled to compensation.