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Over the years, Congress has played a major role in forcing the safer design of vehicles. Lawmakers mandated seatbelts and airbags and spent billions to improve highways. They've gotten results too. Last year, the U.S. recorded the fewest highway deaths since 1961. But with a sour economy and automakers in trouble, the safety agenda is facing some obstacles.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar was a congressional staffer on the panel he now heads, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, when Congress began laying down the law on highway and auto safety in the 1960s.

Representative JIM OBERSTAR (Democrat, Minnesota; Chairman, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee): What I had then was a Ford Galaxy.

(Soundbite of Ford Company ad)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) There are wondrous new life in the parts of a lifetime�

Rep. OBERSTAR: And it had the very minimum seat belt, just the lap belt. It didn't have the shoulder belt. It didn't have the air bags. It didn't have adequate space and protection compartment between the engine and the driver. It was like so many other cars of its nature at that time. It was a death trap.

CORNISH: Spurred by the increasing number of auto deaths, President Lyndon Johnson signed laws requiring new car safety features, like better door latches and steering wheels that absorb impact.

But what really shook things up were revelations by consumer advocate Ralph Nader in 1965 about the auto industry's disregard for safety design. The next year, Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. It set up new agencies to monitor safety and issue regulations. Going forward, Congress would be able to demand everything from rumble strips and a 55 mile-per-hour speed limit, to seatbelts with shoulder straps in all new cars.

(Soundbite of a safety ad)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Buckle up for safety. Buckle up. Buckle up for safety. Always buckle up�

CORNISH: It was an instance in a contentious era where lawmakers and the president where on the same page. Some say it was a golden age for the safety agenda.

Ms. JOAN CLAYBROOK (Former President, Public Citizen): It wasn't a golden age, I mean, I was there. It was touch and go as to whether or not that legislation was going to get passed.

CORNISH: Of course, not everyone agrees. Joan Claybrook used to head the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, and she was chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the 1970s.

Claybrook says Congress has done lots of good, but there have been letdowns, like when the federal speed limit was eliminated and states often fight federal mandates that are enforced by threats to their highway funding. More recently, the auto company bailouts appear to leave safety off the agenda. New green fuel safety standards got the attention of Detroit, but the speedy bankruptcy process freed the auto companies from old product liability lawsuits.

Joan Claybrook.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: The disadvantage right now is that the auto companies are still struggling in Detroit to find their feet and there's a shortage of cash.

CORNISH: A shortage of cash in the states, which often carry out new mandates, and a shortage of federal cash to help them. And no one even wants to debate raising the gasoline tax, so lawmakers have delayed action on a major transportation bill.

But transportation panel chairman Oberstar says Congress isn't about to relinquish its heavy hand in safety issues.

Rep. OBERSTAR: And the Democratic process is messy, to be sure. There are forces for and forces against every initiative in safety that I've observed in 40 years. But in the long run, the forces for safety have prevailed.

CORNISH: Oberstar says he's still pushing for a half trillion-dollar transportation bill that would include money for highway safety and set a long-term safety agenda.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.

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