General Motors’ subsequent apology to Ralph Nader on March 23, 1966 was front-page news. It put him on network television and propelled him and the cause of vehicle safety to the top of public policy issues. Mr. Nader did not politely accept the apology, however, choosing instead strike while the iron was hot and sue General Motors for compensatory and punitive damages. The lawsuit was settled out of court, with Mr. Nader receiving $425,000, “the largest settlement in the history of [US] privacy law.” Mr. Nader used the money to found a range of public interest groups including the Center for Auto Safety, which exists to this day.
It is generally accepted that the mandatory inclusion of seat belts, head restraints, shatter-resistant windshields and impact-absorbing steering wheels in consumer vehicles and the formation of the US National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration are a direct result of Mr. Nader’s work 50 years ago.
In retrospect, the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed was a jolt that precipitated serious research and development into automobile safety and the perfection and proliferation of technologies like airbags, anti-lock brakes and electronic stability systems, all of which existed in concept or in prototype form in the 1950s but were disparaged and/or ignored by the auto industry. Even self-driving cars were posited decades ago, although the notion was ridiculed at the time.
But it was true the car companies were remiss. They chose to believe that the design of their products was unrelated to deaths and injuries on the road. They knew better. They oversold, under-delivered. From Mr. Nader’s point of view, they lied.
How ironic – or maybe how sad – that during the 50th anniversary year of “Unsafe at Any Speed,” General Motors would be fined $900 million by the US Department of Justice (a “slap on the wrist, according to the Washington Post) for “hiding a fatal ignition switch defect linked to at least 174 deaths,” and that Volkswagen would be caught flouting environmental laws.
Furthermore, in February 2015, Fiat Chrysler was fined $105 million for failing to complete 23 safety recalls covering more than 11 million vehicles and was faulted again in September 2015, for under-reporting death and injury claims. Likewise Honda, early in 2015, was fined $70 million for under-reporting death and injury claims and failing to report other warranty claims.
Not to mention the worldwide recall of defective Takata supplied airbags. Turns out that 2015 already represents the highest number of recalls – 50 million and counting – in the US since recalls began.
These are giant, multinational companies we’re talking about and our Canadian divisions are very small components of them, with little if any input into the direction and operation of the enterprise as a whole. In any major corporation – car companies among them – growth and the generation of profits are their goals and their reason for being.
That’s not to say that people in them are without good intentions, but the history of such mega-enterprises, be they in the energy sector, telecom companies, agriculture, pharmacy, mining or others is that people, values and sometimes laws will get stepped on in the daily realization of their goals.