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

Federal management of our health and well-being: car safety

Here’s part 3 of our small series, inspired by the health-care debate, on whether the federal government can properly look after our health and well-being. We turn here from food and drug safety to cars.

The safety of the cars manufacted by U.S. automakers was completely unmonitored by anyone before the 1960s. For decades Americans drove cars that not only were often unsafe, but were under absolutely no pressure to be safe. There was no consumer protection service for drivers. If your car was dangerous, that was your problem. Causes of accidents were not investigated with an eye to forcing car manufacturers to improve their products. In 1958 the UN established an international “forum” for vehicle regulation, but the U.S. refused to join it. As is so often the case, manufacturers assumed—and protested loudly—that any oversight would be fatal to them, that bankruptcy was the only possible outcome of regulation, and that U.S. consumers did not want safety regulations.

By 1965, all this de-regulation had created a situation where, according to a report released the next year by the National Academies of Science, car accidents were the leading cause of death “in the first half of life’s span” (from the “History of US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration NHTSA” website at http://www.usrecallnews.com/2008/06/history-of-the-u-s-national-highway-traffic-safety-administration-nhtsa.html).

The Big Three responded as they always had—by saying that all accidents were the result of driver error or bad roads. Since the 1920s, U.S. car manufacturers had pushed what they called the “Three E’s”—Engineering, Enforcement and Education”. As Ralph Nader put it (much more about him later) “Enforcement” and “Education” were directed at drivers, and “Engineering” was directed at all those bad roads causing accidents.

With the federal government still reluctant to step in and regulation car manufacturer safety standards—just as Congress, lobbied relentlessly by criminal food manufacturers had refused to step in to regulate food and drug safety—it took a bombshell book to shake up the status quo.

Next: Ralph Nader and Unsafe at Any Speed