English: Head-and-shoulders portrait of Ralph ...

Ralph Nader (1975) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ralph Nader’s book, Unsafe At Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, smashed into bookstores on November 30, 1965.

The auto industry’s initial reaction was to try to dig up dirt on the author, Ralph Nader. But, since he drove an old car and lived modestly, they failed.

Nader accused auto manufacturers of favoring comfort over safety. It’s likely they were reading their audience correctly. But, Nader claimed we could have both.

The car model Nader focused his attention on in the book was the Chevrolet Corvair. A lawyer, he had begun to research what he called in his book the “the one-car accident”  because more than 100 lawsuits had been filed against the Corvair for excessive rollovers.

He found that, unlike any other car at the time, it required different tire pressures in front and rear wheels. Because of its design, it needed an anti-roll bar in the front and an independent suspension in the back, something its Chevy corporate suspension mechanic had argued for during design, but was left off the models between 1960 to 1963, when Nader would have been doing the research for this book.

Nader goes on to lament the shiny dashboards in some cars that could cause reflected sunlight to blind the driver and non-standard gear-shift patterns in automatic transmissions that caused some drivers to shift into reverse when they meant to park.

He discusses the effect of the interior on passengers in a crash, called “the second collision” because of protruding knobs, bars and the steering wheel column, as well as naming the automobile a significant contributor to Los Angeles’ smog.

He dismissed the auto industry’s argument that focusing on safety would cause cars to be more expensive by pointing out they were already adding an average of $700 per car on style changes and only 23 cents on safety changes. He argued that consumers would not be alarmed if manufacturers touted safety features. He pointed to grill and bumper designs that made it unnecessarily more dangerous for pedestrians hit by cars.

He looked to government to mandate safety standards in light of evidence that engineering designs that could prevent or reduce death and injury were available, just not being used. After Nader successfully sued General Motors for harassment and invasion of privacy, and won, he used the $425,000 award to lobby for consumer rights.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was established as a result of legislation passed in 1966. It has become a clearinghouse for traffic safety research, develops crash dummies and administers the Vehicle Identification Number system.

In 1968, the federal government required that seat belts be installed in all cars for all seats. New York was the first state to require that passengers wear them, in 1984.

The Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970.

In 1972, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, after conducting extensive independent tests of the Corvair against contemporary designs, concluded it was no more prone to accidents than other cars of its time.

The number of deaths per mile traveled has continued to go down since they were first tracked in 1922 and the number of fatalities continues its downward trend.

There were 47,000 traffic fatalities in 1965. In 2011, there were 32,000.

Though amazon sells copies of Unsafe At Any Speed, by Ralph Nader, they must be rare, because they are very expensive. Here’s a link to copies of Unsafe At Any Speed amazon has available. Though this could change any time as amazon’s audience finds old copies of books and puts them up for sale, readers would be better served to try to find the book at their local library.

I have not read the book, but, a senior in high school when it was published, in a family that used seat belts routinely, I remember its effect.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers



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