unsafe book cover A half century ago, consumer advocate Ralph Nader wrote “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile.” The groundbreaking book set the wheels in motion for making driving safer today. (Photo: /Autos.ca)

The first sentence set the tone: “For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people.” From there the book addressed everything from brakes that didn’t work effectively to steering wheels that could impale a driver in a crash.

“Unsafe at Any Speed” got so much attention that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act a mere 10 months after it hit bookstore shelves. That act led to the establishment of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and gave the government authority to impose safety regulations on car manufacturers and to require car makers to recall any vehicles that don't meet those standards or have safety-related defects.

Related: Do You Know if Your Vehicle Has Been Recalled?

Since the book was published, those regulations have helped reduce traffic deaths by 80 percent — from a rate of 5.5 deaths per 100 million miles of travel to 1.07 deaths per 100 million miles of travel, according to Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group founded by Consumers Union and Ralph Nader. In all, he says, 3.5 million lives have been saved.

Vehicle safety is one of the most successful government programs ever,” says Ditlow. “If you look at 3.5 million lives, that’s a huge success story. But for ‘Unsafe at Any Speed,’ I don’t know whether we would have reached the tipping point where we passed those laws in 1966.”

The evolution of auto safety

Safety innovations that followed on the heels of the book's release included such things as laminated windshields, dual breaking systems and mandatory seat belts. Safety standards would later evolve to address issues including side impact protection, stronger roofs, interior padding and side airbags.

Related: How to Make Your Next Car Safer

Cars continue to be safer and safer. For example, the NHTSA says beginning with model year 2018, the agency will update its 5-Star Rating System to include automatic emergency braking (AEB) as a recommended safety technology. AEB makes it possible for cars to detect an object in the road and stop moving if a driver doesn’t hit the brakes. Other safety innovations include back-up cameras, improved seat belt designs and systems that detect and wake a driver who has drifted off to sleep.

Ditlow says in the future he expects the introduction of vehicle-to-vehicle communication that will prevent collisions by doing such things as preventing a car from getting hit at an intersection if someone runs a red light.

A car is only as safe as its driver

2014 was the safest year on record in terms of road fatalities, but a report by the NHTSA found total traffic deaths rose in the first half of 2015.

The report suggested the rise could be attributed to job growth, lower fuel prices, increased leisure driving and more young people behind the wheel. It also found human error was the cause in an estimated 94 percent of crashes; just 2 percent of accidents were due to vehicle-related factors.

In 2014, about half of drivers and passengers who died in auto accidents weren’t wearing seat belts. Drunk driving was to blame for about a third of deaths and speeding was a factor in more than one in four fatalities. Distracted driving accounted for 10 percent of deaths. Drowsy driving was responsible for 2.6 percent of deaths.

“While great public attention is focused on safety defects and recalls, and rightfully so, it is time as a nation to reinvigorate the fight against drunk and drugged driving, distraction and other risks that kill thousands every year,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind wrote in the report.

Related: The Dumbest Things People Do Behind the Wheel

To be safer behind the wheel in 2016, the Center for Auto Safety’s Ditlow suggests if you buy a new car, buy one with automatic emergency braking, which is an option right now. And, he says, don’t use your cell phone behind the wheel.

“One of the bigger problems is distracted driving. As you put more electronics in cars, the temptation to use cell phone, catch up on email or even browse the Internet is there,” says Ditlow. “It’s a bit like drinking and driving or seat belt use. It took a while to educate people. With distracted driving, we’re at the stage where people are just beginning to learn how it can lead to a crash.”

Like this article? Share it with friends by clicking the Facebook or Twitter button below. And don't forget to visit our Facebook page!

Daniel S. Levine is an award-winning journalist who heads the Levine Media Group and hosts The Bio Report and RARECast podcasts. He was an editor of The Burrill Report and worked for the Oakland Tribune, Adweek, the San Francisco Business Times and other publications.