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The History of Driving Laws [1966 – Present]

Driving is one of the most significant parts of American lives in the twenty-first century. There’s a wide spectrum of auto insurance companies that together form a billion-dollar industry, and each year, Americans spend over seven billion hours behind the wheel.

With population rising every year in the United States, traffic is the worst it has ever been in many states across the country. The road can be a dangerous way to travel, so how do we ensure safety behind the wheel? 

The answer is traffic laws. New laws are implemented every day. The Department of Transportation and the U.S. government are developing regulations as we speak to combat dangerous driving. 

In our previous article (The History of Driving Laws 1901-1960), you saw the revolution of driving laws that began in 1901 with the first traffic laws regulating speed came about. Now, you’ll see how those first laws developed to the rules of the road we know today. 

The Creation of the DOT

The implementation of the Department of Transportation is the most critical date in the history of driving. It symbolized the beginning of a transformation to a safer road for everyone. It stood for change, and that what was happening previously was not good enough to keep Americans safe. 

The motto was created for the DOT that still rings true in 2019. Their mission statement is “to ensure our nation has the safest, most efficient and modern transportation system in the world; that improves the quality of life for all American people.” From the oldest safety laws they brought to the U.S. to the revolutionary laws they create today, the DOT is the backbone of traffic law in America. 

The first law the DOT brought to congress was to approve a set of safety regulations on vehicles. Federal Safety Standards for cars become effective on January 1, 1968. The standards held car manufacturers accountable if something was to happen on the road that was not the driver’s fault, but the vehicle’s failure. Since 1968, the safety standards for cars have changed dramatically. 

The Highway Safety Act of 1970

After the creation of the Department of Transportation, road and traffic safety came to the center of attention in America. It was time to take action not only to prevent bad things from happening, but also to ensure people are being held responsible. 

In response, the U.S. government passed the Highway Safety Act in 1970. This act included the establishment of the NHTSA or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Congress gave them the task of being responsible for reducing deaths, injuries, and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes. Paired with the DOT, the two coalitions would rein in a flood of new traffic laws and safety requirements that continue to the present day. 

Crash Test Dummies

In 1984 seat belt concerns became the center of attention in the automotive world. Most cars were equipped with them, but not enough people were using them. The New York DOT creates the first law that requires passengers to wear seat belts in cars. This was a step in the right direction, but not enough to make an impact on the entire U.S. Then along came crash test dummies. 

In 1985, seat-belts were still not being used as much as America would have liked them to be. To promote the wearing of seat-belts across the country, manufacturers began filming crash test dummies in vehicles. Dummies had been in use since the ’50s, but the general population did not see the tests that were done. 

In 1985, the advertisements across America would show a car full of dummies crashing into a cement wall at 55 MPH and demonstrate what happens with and without seat-belts. This was the beginning of the push to always wear a seat belt while you’re in a vehicle. 

Click-It or Ticket

Through the next decade, many new safety standards and laws were established, which included 5-Star Safety Rating scales, zero-tolerance in all 50 states for drunk driving underage, and the expansion of airbags. In 2003, the next big advertisement came to the fore-front. The “click-it or ticket” campaign began. It was of the most extensive campaigns on traffic safety in the history of driving that continues to this day.

The law was established in all 50 states and stated that if you are seen without a seat-belt, you will automatically be ticketed by an officer. Statistics for seat belt wearing were at an all-time high the following year. 

Battling Distracted Driving

By 2009, technology had taken its everlasting grasp on the minds of Americans at every corner of the country. A new safety concern was on the minds of the DOT and the NHTSA. The term was coined, “distracted driving.” 

This was the first of many battles in a long war with texting, eating, doing makeup, etc. behind the wheel. The main concern when the law came to was how many drivers were using their phones while driving. Technology in vehicles had become a genuine issue. 

An Executive Order, signed by President Barack Obama, directed Federal employees to not engage in texting while driving government-owned vehicles. This was the first step in the crack-down on “texting and driving.” 


In 2019, “texting and driving” is one of the main concerns for officials and law-makers. In 2017, there were 3,166  people killed by distracted driving. Since 1966 traffic laws and driving regulations have changed and increased significantly. 

The major components of this safety push were the creation of the DOT and the NHTSA. The bond between these two agencies created a want for safety among the American people that continues forth into the future.

If you missed part one of the History of Driving Laws.

Author Bio: Ethan Lichtenberg is a writer for He enjoys Edgar Allan Poe and sneaking off to the beach every chance he gets.

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