Ralph Nader Versus the American Auto Industry
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Ralph Nader Versus the American Auto Industry

One of the pioneers of consumer rights is the political activist Ralph Nader. He is a lawyer who has campaigned for consumer rights, as well as feminism and the environment. He has also run for President on numerous occasions.

Keywords: Ralph Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed, consumer rights, General Motors, American cars, American auto industry, Harley Earl 

"For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury, and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people. With Medea-like intensity, this mass trauma began rising sharply four years ago, reflecting new and unexpected ravages by the motor vehicle. A 1959 Department of Commerce report projected that 51,000 persons would be killed by automobiles in 1975. That figure will probably be reached in 1965, a decade ahead of schedule."

Ralph Nader’s Preface to Unsafe at Any Speed

One of the pioneers of consumer rights is the political activist Ralph Nader. He is a lawyer who has campaigned for consumer rights, as well as feminism and the environment. He has also run for President on numerous occasions.

In 1965 Nader published a book called Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile, which revealed that a lot of the cars on the American market were fundamentally dangerous – they had shocking safety problems. Nader starts out by saying that cars have brought death, injury and sorrow to millions of people. He calls them automotive time bombs.

The automotive industry constantly restyles cars in order to stimulate demand and make people buy new models. For example, General Motors hired a designer called Harley Earl as its chief stylist. Harley Earl included features that he knew were going to date very quickly to give people an incentive to buy new ones. He called this “dynamic obsolescence.”

This whole system was criticised by Ralph Nader. He demonstrated that the internal mechanics were barely changed when they produced a new model. They just re-styled the external skin. He also discovered that the cost of styling diverts money from the engineering. He estimated that for every car, $700 was spent on styling, and only 23 cents on safety.  According to Nader:

"This country has not been entirely laggard in defining values relevant to new contexts of a technology laden with risks. The post-war years have witnessed a historic broadening, at least in the courts, of the procedural and substantive rights of the injured and the duties of manufacturers to produce a safe product. Judicial decisions throughout the fifty states have given living meaning to Walt Whitman's dictum, "If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred." Mr. Justice Jackson in 1953 defined the duty of the manufacturers by saying, "Where experiment or research is necessary to determine the presence or the degree of danger, the product must not be tried out on the public, nor must the public be expected to possess the facilities or the technical knowledge to learn for itself of inherent but latent dangers. The claim that a hazard was not foreseen is not available to one who did not use foresight appropriate to his enterprise."

It is a lag of almost paralytic proportions that these values of safety concerning consumers and economic enterprises, reiterated many times by the judicial branch of government, have not found their way into legislative policy-making for safer automobiles. Decades ago legislation was passed, changing the pattern of private business investments to accommodate more fully the safety value on railroads, in factories, and more recently on ships and aircraft. In transport, apart from the motor vehicle, considerable progress has been made in recognizing the physical integrity of the individual. There was the period when railroad workers were killed by the thousands and the editor of Harper's could say late in the last century: "So long as brakes cost more than trainmen, we may expect the present sacrificial method of car-coupling to be continued." But injured trainmen did cause the railroads some operating dislocations; highway victims cost the automobile companies next to nothing and the companies are not obliged to make use of developments in science technology that have demonstrably opened up opportunities for far greater safety than any existing safety features lying unused on the automobile companies' shelves."

1962 Chevrolet Corvair Monza

Nader was particularly critical of General Motors‘ Chevrolet Corvair (1960-3), which allegedly had unusual weight distribution that meant it was prone to flipping over on corners, and not necessarily at high speeds. Nader argued that American car design represented style over substance and style over safety.

This made Nader very unpopular with the car industry. General Motors allegedly tried to discredit him by hiring private detectives to tap his phones and investigate his past. It was also claimed that they hired prostitutes to try and seduce him, in order to catch him in compromising situations. They failed to turn up any wrongdoing. When Nader discovered these tactics, he sued the company for invasion of privacy and used the $284,000 settlement to expand his consumer rights efforts.

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Comments (4)

Nice article Michael. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, the unsafest part of any vehicle, be it a car, truck SUV, motorcycle, boat, or airplane is the nut behind the controls.

Ranked #8 in Automobile History

Thanks, Jerry. For some reason this article has been published twice.

Great article on a man who gets a lot less recognition than he deserves. Ralph Nader probably saved tens of thousands of lives. I think he's one of the most under-appreciated people of the 20th century.

I agree with the viewpoint of Nader. Many lives were lost unnecessarily due to failed brakes, poor car designs, among others. Cars just change design but are essentially the same inside.

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