June 24: U.S. Senate passes the Highway Safety Act on this date in 1966

It's still amazing to note how the history of auto safety in the United States depends in large part on one man. Ralph Nader was a crusading lawyer and freelance writer who hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., in 1963. His book "Unsafe At Any Speed," an indictment of automakers and especially the Chevy Corvair with its rear engine and live swing-axle design, didn't get much notice until other journalists revealed General Motors had hired private detectives to dig up dirt on Nader. Once he had the spotlight, Nader waged an expert campaign against industry opposition that led to the U.S. Senate unanimously passing what would later be named the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act on this date in 1966. That year, 50,864 people would die in vehicle crashes; the toll would peak at 54,589 in 1972 before starting to decline. Here's an apt illustration of the impact Nader had: folk singer Tom Paxton singing his song "Detroit Auto Safety Massacre Blues."