from either cars or guns, the progress and obstacles in these other areas offer important lessons for obesity prevention.


Motor vehicle crashes cause more than 33,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries in the United States each year, noted Teret. They are the most common cause of death for Americans aged 4 to 34 and are the third leading cause of years of life lost prematurely, behind cancer and heart disease (NHTSA, 2008).

A major change in recent decades that has reduced the number of automobile-related deaths and injuries is the use of seatbelts and the presence of air bags in cars. Federal legislation created the agency that would become known as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and federal regulation then required the installation of seatbelts in cars. But establishing this requirement was not enough. For years after seatbelts were installed in cars, the percentage of drivers and passengers who used them hovered around 10 or 15 percent, said Teret. The question then became how to employ the law to make people use their seatbelts.

Eventually, the states began to pass laws that mandated the use of seatbelts. The percentage of people using seatbelts rose, but still not enough to prevent many injuries. Furthermore, in crashes involving severe deceleration, seatbelts did not provide enough protection to prevent all injuries.

A campaign to install air bags in cars was therefore initiated, but not without controversy. Regulations for the installation of air bags were promulgated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration but were subsequently revoked because of the politics of the time. The courts became involved in addressing the legal propriety of rescinding the regulations, and in a landmark case in 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the regulations requiring automatic restraints, which include air bags, were valid.

Even after that ruling, it often was impossible to buy a car equipped with air bags. Advocates therefore turned to litigation in state courts. The first such case brought in the United States involved a woman who had been rendered a quadriplegic in an automobile crash. The lawsuit stated that the defendant in the case, Ford Motor Company, should be held liable for not offering an air bag as an option in her car. The first patent for an air bag had been issued in 1953, but the automobile companies were not using this life-saving technology. The lawsuit stated that if cars had been offered with air bags, either as standard equipment or as an option, perhaps this injured woman and many thousands of others would not have suffered severe and disabling injuries.

Ten days into the trial, Ford Motor Company settled the case through a payment of $1.8 million. The trial generated a great deal of press coverage,

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement