As part of our project on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society, we will take a look this week at some lesser-known but important things that came out of the myriad programs that were created and legislation that passed. We now take many of them for granted. Each day this week we'll highlight one.

Padded dashboards


( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan)

 

The advent of the automobile and creation of the highway system opened up America to legions of travelers, truck drivers, and road-tripping families, but it also brought devastating consequences: thousands of deaths on the road each year. In 1965, 50,000 people were killed in automobile accidents, according to President Lyndon Johnson, and the year before, highway accidents cost the nation $8.3 billion in property damage, wrote Ralph Nader in his book "Unsafe at any Speed."

Johnson signed two landmark auto safety bills in 1966: The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act.

"For years now, we have spent millions of dollars to understand and to fight polio and other childhood diseases. Yet up until now we have tolerated a raging epidemic of highway death--which has killed more of our youth than all other diseases combined,"  Johnson said at the bill signing.

They brought myriad changes to America's cars, including seat belts, windshield wipers, outside mirrors and padded dashboards.

All dashboards created starting in the 1968 model year were required to have a layer of foam behind them. Dashboards made before that were not required to have padding and sometimes contained control panels. The hard surfaces led to head and other injuries in accidents.

Joseph A. Califano, Jr., Johnson's special assistant for domestic affairs,  recalled the first time Johnson saw a padded dashboard.

Every year, Califano said in an interview, Henry Ford sent a white convertible to Johnson's Texas ranch. Johnson drove the car himself.

"The president gets into the car, and this is after the bills were starting to take effect. The dashboards were recessed and the padded part is out in front. It was harder to reach some things," Califano said. "And he said, 'what the hell is this? Why are they doing this?' and we said, 'Mr. President, it's part of the auto safety bill. People are smashing into dashboards. It's yours, you know."