By Nicole Nugent Covert, Granddaughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson
In 1966, the United States knew more about sending a man into space than it did about protecting families as they traveled in automobiles on our nation’s highways. That was the year my grandfather, President Lyndon B. Johnson, signed into law the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. This landmark legislation required manufacturers to install seat belts in all new vehicles starting in 1968.
Up to that point, vehicle and highway safety features many Americans now take for granted – such as air bags and highway guardrails – were not generally available. In the mid-1960s, it was commonplace for 50,000 people to be killed each year on the nation’s highways.
In 1965, my mother, Luci Baines Johnson, turned 18. For her birthday, my grandfather gave her a 1965 Corvette Stingray with removable hardtop. My mother adored that car, but two years later, my grandfather quietly swapped it out with a large, safe sedan. By that point, my mother was pregnant with my brother and my grandfather had no intention of taking any chances with his daughter or his first grandchild.
As a mother of two high school students, I now think about traffic safety from a whole new perspective. At least I can rest a little easier because of the steps taken by their great-grandfather to make seat belts standard in all vehicles.
Thanks to vehicle safety and engineering improvements initiated almost 50 years ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved. Here in Texas, home to my grandfather and the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum, seat belt use hovers around 94 percent, ranking Texas among the top 10 states in the nation. Even with that compliance rate, there were more than 5,000 traffic crashes on Texas highways last year where unrestrained motorists died or were seriously injured.
That’s why the Texas Department of Transportation makes a concerted effort each year to encourage Texas motorists to take advantage of the safety device that now comes standard in every vehicle – the seat belt. Since 2002, the annual Click It or Ticket campaign has urged Texans to buckle up or face the prospect of getting an expensive ticket.
Texas law requires everyone in a vehicle to be secured by a seat belt, whether they’re sitting in the front seat or back. Children under age 8 must ride in a child passenger safety seat or booster seat unless they are taller than 4 feet 9 inches. Drivers as well as passengers can be ticketed for not buckling up, with drivers facing hefty citations if a child in the vehicle isn’t properly restrained. Fines range up to $250, plus court costs.
As part of a nationwide mobilization, Texas law enforcement officers will be out in force between May 20 and June 2 – including Memorial Day weekend – ticketing drivers and passengers who are not wearing seat belts. While the Click It or Ticket campaign uses the threat of a citation to get motorists to buckle up, at its core, it is a safety campaign designed to get drivers and passengers to take a simple step to protect themselves in the event of a crash.
What my grandfather said decades ago about highway safety remains true to this day. At the signing of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and companion legislation 45 years ago he said: “We are going to cut down this senseless loss of lives. We are going to cut down the pointless injury. We are going to cut down the heartbreak.”
That legislation mandating seat belts in all vehicles – part of my grandfather’s legacy – will continue to save thousands of lives each year, but only if drivers and passengers regularly use them.
Seat belts provide life-saving protection in the event of a crash, and they’re also the only defense against a seat belt citation. So remember to Click it or Ticket.