Ralph at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers

Ralph Nader, a student of Harvard Law School, had a deep interest in highway safety and continuously advocated for automotive companies to design safety features into cars, rather than stylistic features. After Nader scored a deal with an independent New York publisher to write a book on that topic, Nader wrote Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of The American Automobile in 1965. Nader’s book caused massive controversy across the nation, creating conflict regarding whether or not the federal government should regulate the automotive industry. The compromise that followed paved the way for the creation and enforcement of the stringent automobile safety standards we take for granted today.In 1959, while Nader was a dispatch writer for The Nation, he published an article titled “The Safe Car You Can’t Buy”, which entailed how “State motor vehicle codes set minimum standards for equipment” and that “a problem so national in scope and technical in nature can best be handled by the legislative process, on the federal level.” Nader continued to advocate for automobile safety with his research as a law student and began writing a manuscript for a potential book on automobile safety. His manuscript was repeatedly turned down by editors until Nader finally received a $3,000 dollar advance from Grossman Publishers and went on to have the book published in late 1965.Unsafe at Any Speed focused on the “designed-in dangers of the American Automobile”, by using the stylistic Chevrolet Corvair and its many handling problems as the primary example. In the book, Nader argued that cars have been designed with style in mind rather than safety, stating that car crashes were caused not because of “the nut behind the wheel, but the nut in the wheel,” which alluded to the unstable suspension system used in the Corvair. The book wasn’t received well upon publication. Time Magazine viewed it as “an arresting, though one-sided, lawyer’s brief that accuses Detroit of just about everything except starting the Vietnamese War.”Shortly before the release of Unsafe at Any Speed, General Motors Corporation hired a private detective agency ran by Vincent Gillen to follow Nader and try to uncover evidence about “his real interest in safety, his supporters if any, his politics, his marital status, his friends, his women, boys, etc., drinking, dope, jobs…all facets of his life” in an attempt to undermine Nader’s opinions and public image, sparking conflict between Nader and General Motors. Two months after the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, in January 1966, Nader began to suspect that he was being followed through anonymous late-night phone calls. On March 9th, GM publicly admitted that they were investigating Nader, however, they stated that it was simply “routine.” Nader immediately questioned this, saying in a Washington Post article, “…Is it ‘routine’ for General Motors to hire detectives to ask about one’s sex life, religious practices, political affiliations and credit ratings?  Is it routine for GM agents to solicit information from a professor of law at Harvard and other associates of mines on the wholly false pretext that I was being considered for a ‘lucrative research job’?  Against such a faceless and privileged prober, who knows what other invasions of privacy have occurred…?” Eventually, on March 22nd, a formal apology was issued by GM CEO James Roche to the US Senate Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization, stating that “I hold myself fully responsible for any action authorized…by any officer of the corporation…related to our investigation of Mr. Nader.” During that hearing on March 22nd, it also became evident to the US Senate that traffic safety was a very important issue in this country, with Senator Ribicoff stating, “The safety of motor vehicle travel is a matter of vital concern to the American people as a whole, as well as to the millions whose livelihoods depend upon our transportation system and automotive industry.” This shows that the government was going to take the idea of transportation safety and put it into their own hands, rather than leave it to private corporations.After the hearings, Unsafe at Any Speed became a national bestseller in non-fiction from April to July of that year, and Nader continued to testify before the government for automotive safety standards. In September 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson compromised with automotive manufacturers and signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act into law, which established motor vehicle safety standards and created the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency (NHTSA), a part of the US Department of Transportation. The agency was designed to enforce transportation safety standards nationwide. Nader was viewed as a consumer hero and he went on to sue GM in 1970 for excessive invasion of privacy, among other charges. He won the case and used the money to finance future lobbying endeavors, expanding his influence into other democratic issues.Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, along with the events that came about because of it, still bear relevance to this day. According to the Hartford Courant, NHTSA has reported that “there were 5.3 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1965. In 2014, the agency estimated the rate to be 1.04 fatalities per 100 milion sic vehicle miles traveled — an 80 percent reduction.” Not only that, but according to Clarence Ditlow, the executive director for the Center of Auto Safety, “If you just focus on things like the death toll, clearly the act been a success.” Nader’s push for safer automobiles helped to allow safety features like anti-lock brakes, airbags, traction and stability control systems, automatic braking, and rear-view cameras to become almost unanimously standard in newer cars, helping Americans to be much safer on the road, and saving many lives.


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