x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Ralph Nader, a driving force for safety

Nader's 1965 tome Unsafe At Any Speed changed the automotive industry and is still an inciting and insightful read.

Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed may have angered the car industry, but it also brought about a number of changes for the better.
Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed may have angered the car industry, but it also brought about a number of changes for the better.

Ralph Nader doesn't like cars. I don't think he ever did. I doubt he ever will.

When someone begins a diatribe with: "For half a century, the automobile has brought death, injury and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people", and then continues on without even once mentioning the benefits of the automobile, one gets the idea that maybe the author is a little less than objective (perhaps even more telling of his predisposition, he calls automotive styling "pornography").

Yet nowhere in Unsafe at Any Speed, his seminal book on the auto industry published 45 years ago this month, is there even the slightest mention of the freedom, prosperity and the improved quality of life brought on by the advent of the automobile. Indeed, read all 357 pages (including a "Since 1965" preface that my later edition contained) of Nader's tome - suheaded The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile - and you'll come away believing not just that Nader wanted America to build safer cars but that the self-proclaimed safety guru might have even been happier had we all just shrugged off the automotive revolution and returned to the horse and buggy.

Yet, despite the flaws that his anti-car sentiment engendered and the fact that Nader's exposé is almost five decades old, there can be no doubt that Unsafe At Any Speed is one of the most important books - if not the most important - ever written about cars. Love or hate him, Nader is single-handedly responsible for much of the modern automotive safety technology that now cocoons us. Never mind that he has since become a caricature of the American political scene, were it not for Unsafe, there probably might never have been a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Anti-lock brakes, air bags and the three-point seat belt might still be a glint in some Swedish engineer's eye had not Nader taken up his one-man crusade.

It doesn't, however, excuse the fact that his most famous assertion - that the Chevrolet Corvair, "the one-car accident," was unsafe at any speed - might well have been wrong. It certainly was contentious. While Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler and president of Ford, (hardly a safety guru) claimed Nader's assertions "valid", a later NHTSA study and others found the Corvair no more prone to flipping over than its contemporaries. Indeed, reading Nader's assertion that the hundred of lawsuits filed by Corvair owners as proof of GM's culpability reads a lot like recent headlines of Toyota owners threatening court action over the runaway acceleration problem that is looking ever more as if it never existed.

That said, in an eerie precursor to Ford's issue with Explorer tyre pressure monitoring about a decade ago, the Corvair required very strange tyre pressure settings - 26 psi in the rear but a mere 15 in the front - and Nader did point to General Motors's glaring omission in not communicating these requirements to the public and, perhaps more importantly, persuading its dealer body to rigourously maintain them.

Unsafe's most lasting impression, however, is the seemingly total disregard that automakers of the day had for consumer safety. When Nader quotes Harper's magazine - that "so long as brakes cost more than trainmen, we may expect the present sacrificial method of car-coupling to continue", he could have well been talking about Ford's later decision that paying off lawsuits would be cheaper than fixing the design flaw in the Pinto's exploding petrol tank. And General Motors comes across as ruthlessly profit-driven when Nader points out that the company did offer (but did not promote) a regular production option (RPO 696) for the Corvair that added, as well as stiffer suspension, a front stabiliser bar. That a more sophisticated independent rear suspension eventually replaced the early models much-maligned swing axle enormously strengthened Nader's position.

Yet like so many of the tell-all books his writing engendered, Nader was prone to, let's call it, a little obfuscation. His contention, for instance, that the Corvair's propensity to oversteer resulted from its rear-engine design could easily have been applied to other cars with even more accuracy. Indeed, Nader quoted famed sports car racer Denise McCluggage as saying: "Seen any Corvairs lately with the back smashed in? Chances are they weren't run into, but rather ran into something while going backwards. And not in reverse gear either." This might well also have described any Porsche 911 before 1980.

Though Nader gets all the acclaim for exposing the Corvair, the real "hero" of the story was a Chevrolet mechanic, George Caramagna, who first brought the issue (mostly a lack of a front anti-sway bar) to the world's attention. Nader was simply the voice.

Nonetheless, it was Nader who was seen as a pariah when Unsafe was first published in 1965, raising the ire of General Motors in an era when corporate giants still had the wherewithal to quash the "little guy". In Nader's case, the United States' largest automaker had his phones tapped, his private life investigated and even hired prostitutes to solicit him in an effort to discredit his writings. Nader eventually won a lawsuit against GM for invasion of privacy.

Because of the enormous publicity surrounding the case, it's easy to think that Unsafe was entirely about the deficiencies of the Corvair. But, in fact, Nader's pillorying of the Chevy was but the first chapter, just the example of all that he saw wrong with the automotive industry. Indeed, the main thrust of the book details what Nader describes as "the automotive tragedy" that he saw as "one of the most serious assaults on the human body".

Inconsistencies and inaccuracies (and isn't hindsight a wonderful thing) can't, however, undermine the importance of Nader's work. Even if somewhat misleading in its conclusions, at least as regards to the Corvair, Nader's tome changed the automobile for the better in ways no other printed word did before. Or has since. Since the publication of Unsafe At Any Speed, anyone who has ever so much as nicked another car's fender owes Nader debt of gratitude. Far fewer of us would be walking the planet today were it not for his tenaciousness and unwavering dedication to safety.

Unsafe goes on to detail the rest of Nader's concerns, ranging from the obvious (the glaring reflections caused by the then de rigueur chrome-festooned cars) to the downright troubling (Nader's contention that auto engineers fully understood the science of how a human body is affected by a collision but chose not to act upon it). For those, like me, too young to have driven in the early 1960s, finding out that early automatic transmissions previously had PNDLR shift patterns that encouraged early adopters to shift "all the way down" looking for the lowest gear only to find reverse seems such a colossal blunder one wonders how supposedly intelligent engineers could be so stupid. By 1966, the now-common PRNDL was adopted by all American automakers.

Still other tidbits of automaker malfeasance infuriate. Nader notes that, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) estimated the annual updates to Detroit iron added about $700 to the cost of each new car, only 23 cents of that was spent on the design and evaluation of safety devices. As well, some of the parallels to modern automotive safety issues are downright eerie; Buick's attempt to cover up the brake problems with its 1953 Roadmaster without alerting the general public sound remarkably similar to Toyota's recent debacle. And, of course, it will warm the cockles of environmentalists to hear that Nader was railing against tailpipe emissions in 1965 with the same ferocity as electric car advocates do today.

The book is also full of interesting little factoids for the modern reader. General Motors, for instance, had a net profit of 10.2 per cent in 1964, a number that would cause any modern CEO to literally bathe in champagne. Nader is also prescient in calling for what he calls "anti-skid" brakes - ABS in modern parlance - a safety upgrade not available on US automobiles until the 1971 Chrysler Imperial, though its availability did not become widespread until German luxury car makers began introducing it in the late 1970s. And the Since Unsafe preface of the 1973 edition also details the burgeoning development of the air bag.

Unsafe at Any Speed is sometimes hard reading and the writing is incredibly heavy-handed. It nonetheless still possesses the ability to shock, 45 years after its initial publication.