Whistleblowers are ‘unreasonable’ people – “Unsafe At Any Speed!”
It’s been just over 50 years since a young lawyer from Connecticut named Ralph Nader published a book about the American automotive industry titled, Unsafe At Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile.
As a whistleblower, Nader should have been prepared for the retaliatory backlash from the politically conservative automotive giants because they would not be pleased by what he had to say in his book.
Nader was put under surveillance, his phone was tapped and prostitutes were hired by General Motors in an attempt to entrap the young man, apparently to no avail.
So why did General Motors go to such great lengths to discredit Nader?
One would only have to start by reading the first chapter in his book which was titled, “The Sporty Corvair – The One-Car Accident”.
This chapter featured a discussion of the safety and handling characteristics of the 1960 to 1963 rear-engine Chevrolet Corvair.
It seems that the car was prone to dangerous over-steer because of its swing-axle configuration and the absence of $6 per car anti-sway stabilizers which were left out due to cost-cutting.
General Motors had even ignored the advice of its own engineer (George Caramagna) that the anti-sway bars should come as standard – though they were offered as an option.
A subsequent 1972 review by the National Highway Safety and Traffic Administration did eventually find that the 1963 Corvair was “no less safe” than its contemporary rivals, the Ford Falcon and Plymouth Valiant.
But the rest of Nader’s book was still on fire about hood ornaments which might seem to be designed to impale unsuspecting pedestrians, non-standardized gear shift selectors which could inadvertently send the car backwards, shiny chrome-plated and non-padded dashboards that dazzled drivers’ eyes, and sharp knobs and switches that speared passengers.
Manufacturers were obsessed with styling and horsepower and didn’t think that safety would sell.
They believed that crashes were caused by bad drivers and bad driving.
The United States was falling way behind European manufacturers who were fitting radial-ply tyres and disc brakes which were actually saving people’s lives.
Nader pointed out that Volvo could make a profit and sell cars with three-point seatbelts.
It really looked like Nader’s book was going to be bad for business, with the final chapter suggesting that, “the automotive industry should be forced by government to pay greater attention to safety in the face of mounting evidence about preventable death and injury”.
At the time about 1000 people per week were being killed in US traffic crashes.
The US Government did eventually take notice and on 9 September 1966 the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was enacted to empower the Federal Government to set and administer new safety standards for motor vehicles and road traffic safety.
In the 50 years since the US legislated safety standards automotive fatalities have reduced from 5.50 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles travelled to 1.07.
Unsafe At Any Speed was undoubtedly a public health success story.
So whatever happened to Ralph Nader?
His continued political activism has produced more legislation including the Freedom of Information Act, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, Clean Water Act, Consumer Product Safety Act, and the Whistle-blower Protection Act
He has run for US president many times since 1972.
His candidacy in 2000 may have unwittingly granted George W Bush the top job when Al Gore fell 537 votes short in Florida on a split liberal/Democrat vote.
Nader has been affectionately described as “An Unreasonable Man”.
According to George Bernard Shaw, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one insists on trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man”.
Doctor Clive Fraser
PS Ralph Nader catches public transport and does not own a car.