Article by Paul Williams, photos from Grossman Publishers, General Motors, nader.org. Additional photos by Autos.ca staff.

Unsafe at Any Speed

Back in the early 1960s, Chevrolet introduced a vehicle called the Corvair. It featured novel design and unusual, by American standards, engineering. Like the old Volkswagen Beetle, the air-cooled engine was at the rear, where it also used a potentially troublesome swing-axle suspension (see descriptive link below). The comparatively compact-sized Corvair came in a range of body styles including convertible, coupe, sedan, station wagon and minivan.

It also, according to American consumer advocate Ralph Nader, featured a propensity for its rear wheels to “tuck in” when cornering that would cause the car to suddenly rotate without warning. Before some hapless Corvair drivers knew it, they were headed backwards down or off the road, with no chance of regaining control. And in the event of a frontal collision, according to Mr. Nader, the fixed steering column might finish the driver off by impaling him or her like a medieval knight at the end of a jousting lance.

Apparently many small aftermarket companies did a brisk business selling “fix kits” for the Corvair, and all the enthusiast car magazines of the day commented on the challenge of driving the Corvair safely.

As it turned out, Chevrolet was well aware of the Corvair’s tendency to “oversteer,” and to compensate recommended the expedient of setting the front tire pressure to 15 pounds per square inch (psi) with 26 psi at the rear. At one of the numerous court cases involving the Corvair, one tire specialist indicated that these pressures were “dangerous under any circumstances for any purposes.”

Chevrolet properly addressed the Corvair’s handling problems in a complete redesign for 1965, which coincidentally was also the year Ralph Nader released his famous book, Unsafe at Any Speed. The book not only targetted the Corvair (featured in Chapter 1, so it got lots of attention), but was a scathing indictment of the entire US automotive industry. He used terms like “slaughter” and “carnage” to drive home his points, and he was just as critical of Ford and Chrysler as he was of General Motors. To say that Mr. Nader and his book made waves would be an understatement.

The motivation for Mr. Nader’s book was the unrelenting and staggeringly high rate of motor vehicle deaths each year in the US. Typically, between 30,000-40,000 deaths were recorded annually from 1930 onwards, and in the year of Unsafe at Any Speed’s publication in November 1965, 47,089 people were killed in car crashes in the US. True, by then there were many more cars on the road than in the 1930s, and many more kilometers driven, but the number of deaths per 100,000 people continued to rise until 1972 and wouldn’t consistently decline until the 1990’s. This in addition to millions of automobile related injuries per year.

Nader’s position was that car companies were thoroughly disinterested in safety, choosing instead to focus on styling and marketing. He posited that the lack of safety was “built in” to cars by neglect; that their engineering was fundamentally unchanged since the 1920s, that numerous safety features could be fitted to or engineered into vehicles that would help protect occupants in a collision or a crash, but that it was more profitable for automobile manufacturers to support the position that the construction of cars had little or nothing to do with their safety. As a young lawyer with a social conscience and an interest in tort law, Mr. Nader found his calling.

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.

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.

Mr. Nader argues that not making people at the top criminally responsible for illegal actions is part of the problem. Lest you think that position extreme, the former Chair of the US Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, makes the same opinion in relation to the scandals on Wall Street that arguably caused near economic collapse in 2008. Firms are penalized; the individuals who run them are not.

Which is why governments, consumer groups, consumer advocates and a vigilant press must exert what pressure they can to ensure that the interests everyday people are promoted and protected, and why consumers, even car enthusiasts, mustn’t allow themselves to be totally hypnotized by the allure of an appealing vehicle.

Happily, Mr. Nader is still around (you can subscribe to his free weekly newsletter), and he has been a thorn in the side to companies and governments for decades regardless of their left, centre or right-leaning orientation. He is indeed a controversial figure, though, being described as “monomaniacal, authoritarian, obsessive, intimidating, seductive, furtive, manipulative, hypocritical, self-serving and more.” He has run for President of the United States five times and has been debatably blamed for splitting the vote that enabled George W. Bush to take Florida in the 2000 election. He’s also a hero to many.

Mr. Nader has started or had a role in starting dozens of consumer and public advocacy organizations and his interests run the gamut from cars to ecology to taxation to species extinction. As far as automobile safety is concerned, he is encouraged by technological advances and the decline in car-related deaths, but troubled by the continuing recalcitrance of the auto industry. In his own words:

There are unfortunately few national problems that are less serious today than they were 50 years ago. The fact that our roads are safer is a testament to the power of public sentiment, citizen advocacy and a government that acts to promote the welfare of its people, not the interests of big business. In this sense, the “car safety war” is certainly a war worth studying, reflecting on, and celebrating.

However, the battle still rages on. A record 50 million cars were recalled in 2014 for safety defects. With recent developments regarding defective ignition switches from General Motors, defective airbags from Takata Industries, exploding Jeep Grand Cherokees from Fiat Chrysler, Toyota’s sudden acceleration, and many other dangerous defects that have been uncovered in the past few years, it’s clear that vigilant watchdogs are needed now as much as ever. (Auto Safety: Past is Prologue, 2015)

Get a copy of Unsafe at Any Speed. It’s quite a read, even 50 years on.

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