Ralph Nader Reflects On His Auto Safety Campaign, 55 Years Later

26:09 minutes

an older man holding a pamphlet in front of an older red car
Ralph Nader, at the American Museum of Tort Law in Winsted, CT, pictured in front of the car he made infamous, the Chevy Corvair Credit: Photo by John Dankosky

It’s hard to imagine a world without seatbelts or airbags. But five decades ago, it was the norm for car manufacturers to put glamour over safety.

“It was stylistic pornography over engineering integrity,” Ralph Nader, prolific consumer advocate and several-time presidential candidate, tells Science Friday.

This winter marks the 55th anniversary of Nader’s groundbreaking investigation, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” a damning look at how little auto safety technology was in vehicles back in the 1960s. The book had a massive effect on auto safety in the U.S., setting the groundwork for laws about seatbelts, and the creation of the United States Department of Transportation.

three posters with pop art showing different situations with cars, including a car crash
Exhibits from the American Museum of Tort Law. Credit: Photo by John Dankosky

Nader joins Ira to discuss what’s happened over 55 years of auto safety advances, and what kind of work is needed to make sure new technology, like self-driving cars, have the safety checks they need before going out on the roads.

Want to learn more? Explore the “55th Anniversary Report from the Center for Study of Responsive Law” here

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Segment Guests

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader is a consumer rights advocate and several time Presidential candidate, based in Winsted, Connecticut.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If we’re talking about cars and highways and I mention the number of 55, what would you say? 55 miles per hour I’ll bet, right? But this year 55 has a special meaning in the car industry, it’s the 55th anniversary of the publication of the automotive game-changing book, Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader. It was a deep analysis of how car manufacturers rejected safety features, like seat belts in favor of looks and comfort. The publication had a massive effect on auto safety in the US and federal oversight of the auto industry was never the same.

The success of that book propelled Ralph Nader to become one of the most influential consumer advocates of his generation. And since then, cars and what we expect from them have changed tremendously. We want our cars to keep us safe and the bells and whistles of safety are a plus, not a minus. But rather than have me tell the story, how about the man himself? Ralph Nader, renowned consumer safety advocate, several-time presidential candidate based in Winsted, Connecticut. Welcome to Science Friday.

RALPH NADER: Thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Ralph, Let’s go back in the wayback machine to the mid ’60s with the publishing of your groundbreaking book. A lot of people who are younger than 55 may not realize just how little safety technology was in cars at that time. Rundown some of the problems with auto safety that were pervasive in the ’60s.

RALPH NADER: Oh certainly. It was a period of technological stagnation by the auto companies. They were making money, they were comfortable, General Motors was the pacesetter and there was very little criticism. I remember one, Donald Frey, the vice president of Ford, made a speech in the mid ’60s, Ira, and he said the last significant innovation in the automobile was the automatic transmission back in the 1930s. So there were no seat belts, no airbags, no padded dash panels, the steering column could be driven rearward into the driver’s chest fatally, door locks were trivial, often cars would pop open if you hit a curb. It was stylistic pornography over engineering integrity.

And when Unsafe At Any Speed came out, it was a time when all crashes, deaths, injuries were blamed on the driver. The auto companies had this pejorative description of the driver as quote, “the nut behind the wheel” unquote. But I learned from studies funded by the Pentagon no less, at Cornell Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, and other insider engineers, that the motor vehicle could protect you in a crash just like kids were protected in theme parks when they bump into each other the five mile an hour maximum speed.

And I also learned that there wasn’t enough innovation in preventing crashes in the first place. And so I wrote this book and General Motors put private detectives on me. They made the mistake of following me up to the Senate office building. I was slated to be testifying before Senator Ribicoff’s committee, and they got in trouble. They were caught by the guards, there was big publicity, a lot of media. They ordered the head of General Motors, James Roche, to come, along with the detective, Vincent Gillen, to testify before the Senate committee. The place was packed.

And just within a few months to show you how fast things were done in those days, from the March of 1965 hearings in Congress to the signing of the Motor Vehicle and Highway Safety laws by Lyndon Johnson in the White House in September and it was done. And the result up and down, depending who was president, was the saving of millions of lives and serious injuries, hundreds of billions of dollars in property damage, family anguish, and more fuel-efficient cars, and less polluting cars.

So those were the years where technological stagnation was the big problem and how to force-feed innovation through government regulations that actually worked. And now the difference is completely the opposite. There is massive innovation, heavily by the automotive suppliers, who often complain about the non-receptive auto manufacturers the way consumer groups do, and by the push from the high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. And we’re in just the reverse now, we’ve got all kinds of safety improvements on the shelf or only for high-priced cars as standard equipment, not for lower-priced cars but the Congress and the government are just not moving.

IRA FLATOW: You talk a lot about in your book about how the Chevrolet Corvair was a particular death trap. Can you explain some of the problems with the Chevy Corvair you wrote about in the book?

RALPH NADER: Yeah, it was a car that was pretty but it was deadly. For example, in certain cornering maneuvers, it would flip over. Its engine was in the rear not in the front. It had a leading surface placement of the driver’s shaft that could be driven right back into the driver, impaling the driver. It leaked carbon monoxide, General Motors actually had a recall late in the era of the Corvair to recall them. In all that sense it put a heavy burden on drivers.

I once was invited to talk to the Corvair Club of America, can you imagine? They had 6,500 members, an annual convention. And as I walked into the room I could feel the tension, Ira. And I got up to the dais and I said I have to say something to reduce the tension. And I said, you know, there’s only one thing maybe we agree on when it comes to the Corvair, and they said what? And I said, that you must be among the best drivers in the world.


It put a heavy burden on the driver.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I watched a few of them spinning out in the snow in Buffalo when I was going to school there. That was an amazing sight. Did you think that it was just the Corvair that was unsafe or other cars?

RALPH NADER: No, so all the motor vehicles were way beyond the curve of applicable readily available crash prevention and crash protection systems like seat belts, for example, were available on the World War I airplanes in World War I to keep the pilot from falling out of the plane. Padded dash panels go back to the ancient Roman chariots for heaven’s sake. And so all cars were failing. And we had all kinds of brakes and tires technologies that were way behind Western Europe auto manufacturers.

The Corvair had unique disabilities, including its lack of safe handling and cornering maneuvers, which were preventable but Chevrolet wanted to save a few bucks per car and didn’t put the fix in. And so I thought since it was produced by the biggest auto manufacturer in the world that I would devote the first chapter to it.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think now that safety sells cars?

RALPH NADER: Oh, yes. That’s another myth, back in the 1960s they said, safety doesn’t sell, style sells. Well, it was false then, because when Ford Motor Company put some options like seat belts and padded dash panels in their cars in 1955, they became the fastest-selling options in automotive history but General Motors unfortunately, didn’t agree and they clamped down on all of this. Now safety is on the minds of families in part, because they know how safety does save lives safety standards for their children, for infants, seat belts. We have now airbags in cars, we have better braking systems, better tires, we have rollover protection on the side, and there’s a lot of other things that have been improved.

But not much progress since Reagan took over, surprising almost 40 years or so where the Department of Transportation was asleep under the gaze of auto lobbyists in Washington. The Congress would harass any effort by the Department of Transportation because they were under the influence, and inaction, inaction, Ira, is not news. So when the government didn’t fulfill in 40 years the requirements of the national motor vehicle safety laws, when they didn’t recall cars, inaction, when they didn’t issue long-overdue safety standards, inaction, when they didn’t release consumer information by make and model, inaction, the media didn’t report it because inaction, when action is required, isn’t viewed as newsworthy. And this is what we’ve got to get over, that it’s when government does nothing that so much bad happens not just when government does some things that are wrong.

IRA FLATOW: Well, what could government be doing now that they are not doing?

RALPH NADER: Well, there’s a whole raft of readily available practical safety features, they’re under certain clusters, one of them is called the assisted driving systems. For example, automatic emergency brakes, the single most important. It’s in some high-priced cars. It’s not required yet on big trucks, that’s coming in the infrastructure bill. European Union requires it for big trucks but not in the US. That could prevent the crash, it could prevent from 25% to 40% of crashes. Because when truck drivers are sleepy or they’re not attentive, this system kicks right in and brakes the truck.

Another one is lane-changing warnings. So if you start drifting into another lane, there’s a warning there. Others are impaired driving prevention systems, the detection systems that have been developed are spectacular, they just have to be put in motor vehicles. This is to deal with the alcoholic drivers who are the cause of thousands of deaths every year. Then there’s distracted driving prevention systems. And of course, the update on all the traditional, better brakes, better tires, better roof crush prevention in rollovers, and the update on all the crash protection, so if you’re in a crash you can walk away without injuries. We need airbags that protect at higher collision speeds, we need better systems in cars.

They are a lot better than they were. I mean, in the old days, Ira, cars are like a room full of knives, sharp edges on the dash panel that could crush a skull at a 10-mile an hour impact. Cars are much safer now but they could become almost invincible to all but the most high-speed collisions, with all kinds of internal automatic airbags between seats and side protection, rollover protection, what are we waiting for? We need the media to get on to it, we need the Congress to wake up and realize they represent motorists, not motor vehicle manufacturers. And we need the professional engineering societies to protect the engineers inside these companies who we sometimes call whistleblowers.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk a bit about self-driving cars. I get the sense that you’re probably not a big fan of them, is that a correct read?

RALPH NADER: Oh, yes. We’re not going to see fully autonomous motor vehicles for years, if not decades. Number one they can be effectively hacked and no matter what the auto companies ballyhoo it or the high-tech companies, they haven’t come close to providing systems to protect against remote hacking. They could now remote hack thousands of vehicles of the same model that are on the highway and that sort of disturbs motorists who like to control their motor vehicles.

If they lose trust in the concept of autonomous driving, the auto companies can’t get anywhere. So they’re not dealing with hacking, they’re not dealing with the human-machine interface electronic control systems. And you have to change all the highways, you have to make sure the signs are not removed, you’ve got to make sure there’s bright white paint, yellow paint, all kinds of multi-billion dollar adjustments with the highway.

And how do they interact with people who are driving? Let’s say you come and you want to go to a driving slot on the road and a autonomous vehicle arrives at the same time. No, there’s tremendous problems. Toyota knows that. They’re not ballyhooing it. There have been comments from motor vehicle executives, Ford, and otherwise, saying, hey, slow down, we’re not going to see this for a while. But we can see semi-autonomous systems like automatic emergency braking systems which are on some high-priced motor vehicles.

IRA FLATOW: They are working their way down are they not? I mean, if people are demanding it. I’ve seen them on Toyotas, on Chevys, they really are working their way down, won’t people demand this, that they get even on the cheaper cars?

RALPH NADER: That’s right. And the more they’re standard equipment, the lower the cost of mass production for each one of these safety systems.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. But speaking of self-driving cars, there are more than 32,000 people killed every year. There are 2 million injured each year from motor vehicle crashes. How much worse could a robot do?

RALPH NADER: Oh, tremendous. You could, for example, see remote hacking from criminal elements that would move thousands of cars off the road at once the same model. All kinds of things can go wrong in terms of the human-machine interaction. The electronic controls, after all, remember Toyota had great problems with sudden acceleration because they weren’t on top of the increasing automation of cars as most other companies. All kinds of problems can occur.

On the other hand, we have readily available practical measures which we outlined in this 55th-anniversary report of Unsafe At Any Speed, that are either on higher-priced cars now which could be put on all cars or they’re ready to go, the automotive suppliers have tested them, they’re all ready to go and that could reduce by 70% to 80% of the 38,000 or more fatalities a year. And it’s now, not some hyped science fiction futuristic dream about fully-autonomous vehicles, whose technical problems remain after years of false assurances and hopes of the auto companies and the high-tech companies.

IRA FLATOW: Do you worry that people might engage in riskier driving behavior if they think that the car that is equipped with all these safety features is going to save them?

RALPH NADER: I don’t think so. That was posited by some of the Milton Friedman free-market types. I don’t think so. It hasn’t been borne out by the studies. But you raise an interesting point, in the Tesla autopilot vehicles which have not been driven that much, there have already been 10 fatalities on the roads that the auto safety agency in Washington is investigating it, there are lawsuits against Tesla. These cars’ systems have not been recalled. And some of them are due to the drivers relying on the autopilot excessively and not quickly reacting when the autopilot fails and there’s about to be a collision.

IRA FLATOW: We have to take a break and when we come back, more with Ralph Nader about the state of auto safety in the US. This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

We’re continuing our conversation about auto safety in the US with my guest, Ralph Nader, renowned consumer safety advocate, several-time presidential candidate. He’s based in Winsted, Connecticut. Are there any safety features that could be added to self-driving cars that would make you feel more comfortable with them because don’t you believe that ultimately, and you have said this, that it’s not going to happen within the next few years but ultimately, don’t you think we’re going to have self-driving cars? And what kind of safety features should be added?

RALPH NADER: Well, I must say, the best self-driving transit vehicles are called public transit and you’re just sitting there looking at your cell phone, reading the paper, snoozing on your way to work. Those are the best self-driving systems. And autonomous vehicle hype is distracting attention from investment in super modern mass transit systems all over the country.

As far as the actual self-driving vehicle, yeah, I mean, you could try to solve the hacking problem, you could simplify the electronic controls, you could put super-duper airbags all over inside the vehicle in case something goes wrong. But we have tested conventional improvements outlined in the possession of the industry, of the government, in some cars already that will save lives and prevent injuries now much faster, much more predictable without the horrific complications of hyped-up automated multilayered software which has all kinds of vulnerabilities.

IRA FLATOW: Turning to what’s going on in our country now, and I’m speaking about mandates for vaccinations. Do you think today if the seat belt law came up to be ratified, would there be a successful pushback against mandatory seat belt wearing?

RALPH NADER: Well, sure. There was when it came up in the ’60s and ’70s, there was tremendous opposition. I was accused of chaining Americans to their vehicle, that all kinds of horrible hypotheticals in addition to an ideological resistance. But we pointed to the auto racing drivers at Daytona and elsewhere and how they were belted in, they had strong rollover protections and they would find themselves in spectacular collisions and they’d walk away. So that was a first step in convincing people of the importance.

The second one was focusing on the children. So you may not want seat belts but you’ve got little children in the car and they need to be protected and that reached a lot more people. And then as more seat belt lives were being saved and reported in the media, more and more people came around. But not in New Hampshire, is the only state left in the country, Ira, that does not require use of the three-point seat belt, not just installation, that’s in all cars. But I guess, in New Hampshire, it’s live free or die, or is that the motto or is it live and die without seat belts?

IRA FLATOW: We got a question on our SciFri VoxPop app from Matthew from Washington, DC.

MATTHEW: In the 1980s when state laws requiring drivers and passengers to wear seat belts came out and my father fought against them tremendously. My question is when it comes to consumer safety in the age of new technology, what can we do with the sociology or psychology part of ensuring that those that use these new technologies are willing to accept the new safety requirements?

RALPH NADER: Well, obviously, it’s the old phrase, you’ve got to engage in very wise public education and start moving on all fronts. I thought in this vaccine situation the government dropped the ball. They should have used the word contagious more, they should have used, you don’t want to have a vaccine but your children are being vaccinated when they’re a very young age from diphtheria and measles and you didn’t object to that. It just wasn’t done right.

Madison Avenue is able to sell people almost anything. I’m surprised they didn’t enlist Madison Avenue. But remember, about 25% of the people are still opposed to vaccination and some of them are opposed because they don’t trust the drug companies, some of that is well-merited. There have been a lot of drugs killing people with side effects like Vioxx years ago. Other millions of people are afraid of needles, terrified of needles, and others are just procrastinators. So they’re not all ideological people against vaccinations per se. And we’ve got to address those wisely, kindly, persuasively, and increase the number and keep testing the longer-range effects of the vaccines that are applied to tens of millions of people.

IRA FLATOW: Do you see any parallels between the giant social media companies of today and the giant automobile companies of the ’60s? I mean, today we have giant social media companies are being accused of putting profits over people. I mean, and that’s what I hear you saying about the automobile companies is that a valid comparison?

RALPH NADER: It is but they’re worse today because the social media companies like Facebook, Google, Instagram, all the rest, they can get into your minds 24-7. There’s no time restriction here, especially children’s minds. With the auto companies, they got into people’s head by selling them style and horsepower and totally ignoring safety and not letting people know how much safer their car can be for their families in a practical and efficient, and non-costly manner and actually reduce their insurance premiums.

But they only got into people’s minds on ads on TV and radio and in print but these social media companies are into these kids’ minds, they’re into adults’ minds insidiously, just non-stop. So I think the focus here has got to be on the advertisers. About 95% of Facebook’s revenues come from advertisers, 80% of Google’s revenue, and just hasn’t been enough media focus on these advertisers and how they use the personal information of hundreds of millions of people in the US and Canada, and then all over the world free.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of non-stop, what does the future hold for Ralph Nader, where are you focusing your energies these days?

RALPH NADER: Well, building new citizen groups around the country. We’re not keeping up with the autocratic movements, the Trump movements, the corporate supremacists, and control. You know, 20 years ago Business Week had a poll, and they said does big business have too much control over your lives? And over 70% of the people said yes. That includes a lot of conservatives. And of course, it’s only gotten worse with social media companies now.

So we need a proliferation of citizen groups and we need better coverage of what existing citizen groups are doing. A lot of people at the local and national level, Ira, are doing great work as citizens. They’re accomplishing great things in cities, suburbs, rural areas, they’re not getting on the evening news, they’re not getting in the newspapers. So I’m trying to make the media more aware of that as we encourage our schools to teach practical civics skills, and connect children under adult supervision with problem-solving in their own community. If we don’t do that, this young generation is going to be lost to the metaverse and to the whole social media alternative virtual reality, and you know where that leads.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, Ralph, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today. You’ve reached 2 million people with your message, so thanks for joining us. Ralph Nader, consumer safety advocate, several-time presidential candidate based in Winsted, Connecticut. Thanks again for taking time to talk with us today.

RALPH NADER: Well, thank you. And you can get this report on auto safety, just go to nader.org. It’s online and free.

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