I must admit that before and during my years as a full-time automobile journalist, I never read Unsafe at Any Speed (whose full title is Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of The American Automobile). I’ve been well aware of the book and of Ralph Nader for years, but I’d never actually sat down and read it. Now it’s a half-century old and you’d think, given that vehicles are undeniably safer now than they were then, that the type of issues Mr. Nader identified would be long resolved. But with Volkswagen and General Motors making unfortunate and humiliating headlines lately, apparently not.
Reading the book recently (an original hard-cover copy from Grossman Publishers, New York, 1965) I was struck by the breadth and scale of Mr. Nader’s work (it’s not all about the Corvair). He researched and wrote it in his late 20s after graduating from Harvard Law School five years earlier. There he became interested in the notion that car companies rather than road conditions or car drivers could be legally responsible for the growing number of fatal car crashes in the US (it was standard industry practice to attribute car crashes to poor roads or “the nut behind the wheel”).
Not content with faulting car companies for focusing almost exclusively on design rather than safety, Mr. Nader also set his sights on the American Automobile Association (AAA), the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), the American Standards Association, the US Road Safety Council, the Automobile Manufacturers Association, the Automotive Safety Foundation and the President’s Committee for Traffic Safety to name a few. What he suggested was a cozy complicity between these organizations that directed attention away from the possibility that car companies were building fundamentally unsafe vehicles.
Page after page, Mr. Nader boldly named names and identified specific vehicles and their shortcomings. By convention, the latter (naming the vehicle) was typically never made public, even in the mainstream media which tended to refer to “a popular sedan,” or similar when commenting on a particular vehicle’s safety record or reporting an incident.
Mr. Nader broke all the rules, defied the status quo and laid bare unsafe practices that he claimed had become the automobile industry’s cost-saving norm since its inception. He tackled tires, pollution, carbon monoxide poisoning, weak bolts that held seats in place, the lack of seat belts, absent head restraints, insufficient brakes, dangerous windshields, failing door locks and sharp metal dashboards in vehicles he identified as devoid of technologies that would contribute to occupant safety. He bluntly said that this omission, this lack of concern for safety, killed people.
When Unsafe at Any Speed was published it catapulted Mr. Nader to national prominence but rather than immediately motivating car makers to raise their safety standards, Nader’s research resulted in General Motors hiring a squad of private investigators headed by a former FBI agent to tail him, harass him, besmirch him and by many accounts, crudely attempt to entrap him. The misguided cloak-and-dagger ploy backfired, resulting in GM suffering the public indignity of testifying at a US Senate hearing into allegations that the company had authorized this type of illegal surveillance against a private citizen. It wouldn’t be the last time that a GM president along with senior company executives would be summoned to Washington to explain their company’s behaviour.