A Drive Through Time


NHTSA has pioneered decades of important and lifesaving work from promoting the use of seat belts, child safety seats and air bags to tire fuel efficiency. Take a drive through time with us and learn about some of the great accomplishments and safety advancements in automotive history from 1878 to today.

Interested in a specific year? Just select the corresponding year to read all about the automotive milestones that took place during that year.

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The First American Bicycle

The first American bicycle is manufactured at the Weed Sewing Machine Company factory in Hartford, Connecticut. It is called the "Columbia Bicycle" and is a 60" High Wheeler sold for $125 at a time when sewing machines sold for $13.



The First Seat Belt

The first seat belt patent is secured by Edward J. Claghorn of New York.



Statewide Traffic Laws

Connecticut creates the first statewide traffic laws. The new laws regulate motor vehicles, limiting their speed to 12 mph in cities and 15 mph on country roads.



Drunk Driving

New York introduces the first drunk driving laws, penalizing drivers for operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.



Stop, Slow, Go!

The three-way traffic light - Red/Yellow/Green - is introduced in the United States.


seat belt artwork

First Seat Belt Offered in American Made Cars

Nash Motors changes its popular Airflytes model to include the first seat belts available in an American car.



Stay Safe

Air bags are invented to help protect drivers and passengers from the impact of an automobile crash.



Motorcycle Helmets

As a result of the increased number of motorcycle fatalities, University of Southern California (USC) Professor C.F. "Red" Lombard develops a motorcycle helmet designed to absorb the shock of impact. He then applies for a patent for his helmet, which is approved.


Window sticker artwork

The Window Sticker

The Automobile Information Disclosure Act passes, requiring all new automobiles to carry a sticker on the window (Monroney label) containing important information about the vehicle, including the manufacturer's suggested retail price, engine and transmission specifications and standard equipment and warranty details.


Department of Transportation - United States of America

DOT is Born!

Congress creates the United States Department of Transportation whose mission is to, "Serve the United States by ensuring a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future."


Federal Safety Standards artwork

First Order of Business

The first Federal Safety Standards for cars become effective January 1, 1968. These new standards help protect drivers against unreasonable risk of crashes occurring as a result of the design, construction or performance of motor vehicles.



Safety First

NHTSA is officially established by the Highway Safety Act. NHTSA is responsible for reducing deaths, injuries and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes. This is accomplished by setting and enforcing safety performance standards for motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment, and through grants to State and local governments to enable them to conduct effective local highway safety programs.
In addition, NHTSA investigates safety defects in motor vehicles, sets and enforces fuel economy standards, helps States and local communities reduce the threat of drunk drivers, promotes the use of seat belts, child safety seats and air bags, investigates odometer fraud, establishes and enforces vehicle anti-theft regulations and provides consumer information on motor vehicle safety topics.


55 mile per hour speed limit sign

Miles Per Hour

The national maximum speed limit is established and set at 55 mph.


Star of Life

The Star of Life is Created

NHTSA creates the Star of Life, which is a symbol seen as a means of identification on ambulances, emergency medical equipment, patches or the apparel worn by EMS providers. Prior to its creation there was no uniform symbol that represented the Emergency Medical Services (EMS).


Car Seat Safety Tips: How to Choose the Right Seat

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Child Safety

The first child passenger safety law is enacted in Tennessee requiring parents to place their young children in an approved child restraint system.

The First NHTSA Administered Crash Test

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Frontal Impact Testing

The first consumer information program on vehicle safety is established and a 35 mph frontal crash test is administered.


Preventing Vehicle Theft

Seat Belt Safety

New York State passes the first U.S. law requiring seat belt use in passenger cars.

Preventing Vehicle Theft

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Theft Prevention

In 1984, Congress enacts the Motor Vehicle Theft Law Enforcement Act in order to reduce the incidence of motor vehicle thefts and facilitate the tracing and recovery of stolen motor vehicles and their parts.


You Could Learn A Lot From A Dummy

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You Could Learn A Lot From a Dummy

To promote seat belt use, NHTSA introduces Vince and Larry, the Crash Test Dummies. The campaign's tagline is, "You Could Learn A Lot From a Dummy."



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We Have a Little Emergency (W.H.A.L.E)

Connie Day, a caregiver from Virginia, develops W.H.A.L.E, a car seat safety program that works to ensure that drivers have the tools they need to help emergency response teams identify children in the event of an emergency that incapacitates them or any passengers. The program requires stickers placed on both the rear side windows of the car and on both sides of the child safety seat so that personnel can identify the child easily.


photograph depicting vehicle crash test

5 Stars for Vehicle Safety

The 5-Star Safety Ratings Program is introduced by NHTSA to help relay vehicle safety information to vehicle owners and buyers in the United States. A vehicle that receives five stars secures the highest rating while a car that receives one star obtains the lowest rating.



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Side Impact Testing

As a part of the 5-Star Safety Ratings Program, NHTSA begins testing and rating vehicles for side impact protection.


zero tolerance artwork

Zero Tolerance

All 50 States and the District of Columbia have Zero Tolerance Laws for drivers under 21 years old. The new law applies to drivers under age 21 who operate a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .02 grams per deciliter or more.


dual airbags

Dual Air Bags

Beginning with model year 1999, the Federal Government requires automakers to install driver and passenger air bags for frontal impact protection in all cars, light trucks and vans.


NCAP Tip-Up Rollover Test

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Expanding the 5-Star Safety Ratings Program

NHTSA further expands its consumer information program by testing and rating vehicles for rollover resistance based on a static measurement of a vehicle's track width and the height of its center of gravity.

tread act artwork

Tread Lightly

Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act is enacted. This Act requires vehicle manufacturers to report safety recalls and information on defects, injury, or death related to its products to NHTSA.


vehicle roll over


NHTSA adds the first crash avoidance rating for vehicles. This is a static test to measure the risk of a vehicle rolling over in a single-vehicle crash.



Click It or Ticket

The Click It or Ticket seat belt enforcement program goes national, working to increase seat belt use in all 50 States.


motorcycle helmet

No Excuses - Wear a Helmet

Louisiana reinstates its universal helmet law requiring all motorcyclists, riders and passengers to wear helmets at all times when operating a motorcycle on the road.


.08 per se laws

In 2000, the President signed the Department of Transportation's Appropriations Act, which included the landmark provision that States must enact .08 BAC per se laws by 2004 or begin losing Federal highway construction funds. By 2005, all States, along with DC and Puerto Rico, have .08 per se laws.


Example Monroney label

Safety Information for All

In an effort to continue making vehicle safety information readily available to vehicle shoppers, NHTSA publishes a rule requiring vehicle manufacturers to incorporate a vehicle safety rating label and affix it to a new vehicle's price sticker (known as the Monroney label) by September 1, 2007.



Saving Lives

Electronic Stability Control (ESC) is mandated on all passenger and light-duty vehicles under a Federal regulation. This life-saving technology system uses computer controlled braking of individual wheels to help drivers maintain control of a vehicle that is beginning to lose directional control. NHTSA estimates that ESC saved 2,202 lives from 2008 to 2010 alone.


Tire Inflation

Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS), an electronic system designed to monitor air pressure when one or more of a vehicle's tires is significantly underinflated, is required in vehicles.


photograph depicting crash test dummies

Major Changes to the 5-Star Safety Ratings Program

NHTSA publishes a notice announcing major changes to the 5-Star Safety Ratings Program. The changes are implemented beginning with model year 2011.


distracted driving

Combating Distracted Driving

United States Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announces a series of concrete actions that the United States Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) and the Obama Administration will take to put an end to distracted driving. Those actions include an Executive Order, signed by President Barack Obama directing Federal employees to not engage in text messaging while driving government-owned vehicles; when using electronic equipment supplied by the government while driving; or while driving privately owned vehicles on official government business. A step in the right direction.


NCAP rich media ad

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5-Star Safety Rating System Enhancements

U.S. DOT and NHTSA unveil the enhanced 5-Star Safety Ratings program for new vehicles. The upgraded program requires more stringent tests, includes a new side pole crash test and more advanced crash test dummies, and incorporates crash-prevention technologies such as Electronic Stability Control (ESC). Also, vehicles now receive an Overall Vehicle Score that combines the results of a frontal crash test, two side crash tests and rollover resistance tests.

Vince and Larry Crash the National Museum of American History

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Hall of Fame

Vince and Larry crash test dummies officially become a part of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History collection.


traffic fatality

Traffic Fatalities at an All Time Low

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announces that the number and rate of traffic fatalities in 2010 fell to the lowest levels since 1949, despite a significant increase in the number of miles Americans drove during the year.

Using the Right Car Seat

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Updates to Child Safety

NHTSA updates its Child Passenger Safety recommendations to be categorized by age rather than by type of child seat in order to keep pace with the latest scientific and medical research and the development of new child restraint technologies.


SaferCar mobile app

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Safety App

NHTSA launches the SaferCar mobile app to provide real-time vehicle safety information to consumers. The app allows users to search for 5-Star Safety Ratings, locate car seat installation help and find recall and complaint information.



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Find Recalls With Your Car's VIN

U.S. Department of Transportation unveils new, free, online search tool for recalls using Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)



More People Are Buckling Up

Seat belt use achieved an all-time high rate of 87 percent.

Test Device for Human Occupant Restraint (THOR)

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5-Star Safety Ratings for the Future

NHTSA announces that the agency is taking its 5-Star Safety Ratings program into a new safety era and encouraging automakers to produce cars with better crash protection and new technology innovations that will save lives. The agency is revolutionizing the way it crash-tests cars and rates vehicles to promote an even higher level of safety.


NHTSA continues to be dedicated to saving lives, preventing injuries and reducing economic costs due to road traffic crashes, through education, research, safety standards and enforcement activity, every day.