Ralph Nader, car safety, and the federal response

Ralph Nader’s landmark book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile is the focus of part 4 of our series on the federal government’s management of public health and well-being.

The book came out in 1965, and each of its chapters covered one problem with car safety (an overview can be found at Unsafe at Any Speed).  For instance, the most famous chapter is on the Chevrolet Corvair, and it’s called “The One-Car Accident.” From 1960-3 the Corvair was built with a faulty rear engine and suspension design that led to accidents. Nader also pointed out how shiny chrome dashboards reflected the sun into drivers’ eyes, non-standard shift controls leading to fatal mistakes, and expensive styling changes carmakers prioritized while stating that safer design would bankrupt them. Nader’s strongest point was that automakers knew how dangerous their cars could be, but did nothing about it because of the cost and the fear of arousing public anger.

GM tried to paint Nader as a lunatic. According to testimony in the 1970 case Nader brought against GM, “…[GM] cast aspersions upon [his] political, social, racial and religious views; his integrity; his sexual proclivities and inclinations; and his personal habits; (2) kept him under surveillance in public places for an unreasonable length of time; (3) caused him to be accosted by girls for the purpose of entrapping him into illicit relationships (4) made threatening, harassing and obnoxious telephone calls to him; (5) tapped his telephone and eavesdropped, by means of mechanical and electronic equipment, on his private conversations with others; and (6) conducted a ‘continuing’ and harassing investigation of him.”

Despite this attack, Nader persevered in speaking to the public, and that public’s outcry led to the development and passage of the 1966 Highway Safety Act.

Next time: the federal government gets behind the wheel of car safety