By: Ralph Nader
Date: February 1966
Source: Nader, Ralph. Testimony to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization of the Committee on Government Operations. Federal Role in Traffic Safety: Hearings Before the Senate Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization of the Committee on Government Operations. 89th Congress, 2nd session, February 1966, 1265–1270.
About the Author: Ralph Nader (1934–) was born in Winsted, Connecticut. In 1955, after graduating from Princeton University, he attended Harvard Law School. While still in school, he became interested in cases involving automobile injuries, so much so that he wrote the article "The Safe Car You Can't Buy." In 1963, he quit his private practice and with one suitcase hitchhiked to Washington, D.C.
In October 1959, General Motors (GM), responding to the growing popularity of the economical German-made Volkswagen Beetle in the United States, began designing the Chevrolet Corvair. The car was a first for Chevrolet because it was powered by an air-cooled, six-cylinder engine. The engine was referred to as a "flat six" because the cylinders were horizontally configured instead of the typical V design. Not only was the engine design unique, but GM engineers, emulating the European Porsche and Volkswagen, placed the Corvair's engine in the rear. In 1962, the first Corvair convertible was sold.
In March 1965, U.S. Senator Abraham Ribicoff, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization, launched an investigation of automobile safety. The federal government had imposed safety regulations on passenger ships, Pullman train cars, and airplanes, yet the automobile industry had been left largely unregulated.
That November, Ralph Nader authored the book Unsafe at Any Speed. The first sentence of the book reads, "For over a half a century the automobile has brought death, injury, and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people."
Nader slammed GM for investing only $1 million of its $20.7 billion, or two-hundredths of 1 percent, in profits on collision research. As an example of GM's neglect, Nader cited the Corvair. In making a case for government regulation, Nader claimed that the Corvair's design was so flawed that it fishtailed easily and was prone to rollover when cornering sharply.
Outraged, GM hired private detectives to scour Nader's personal life for indiscretions, eventually accusing him of being gay and anti-Semitic. When GM's smear campaign was revealed, Nader successfully sued the corporation for $425,000. Due to this publicity, Nader's claims gained credibility. Ironically, GM, which prior to the publication of the book planned to end Corvair production in 1966, felt compelled to continue producing the poor-selling model. It was not until the 1969 model year that production was halted.
In June 1966, the Senate subcommittee released its long awaited report. It indicated that automobile safety defects were more pervasive than the public realized. These defects, combined with the increase in both the number of bigger and faster automobiles and the number of miles people traveled each year in them, caused the rate of motor vehicle deaths and injuries to skyrocket. By 1965, the annual death toll in motor vehicle accidents was at fifty thousand, making automobiles the leading cause of accidental death for all age groups and the overall leading cause of death for the population below the age of forty-four.
After the release of the report, President Lyndon B. Johnson (served 1963–1969) called highway deaths "the gravest problem before this nation-next to the war in Vietnam." That September, Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act, both of which mandated safety features on every car sold. Two years later, the government created the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
As a result of these laws, nineteen federal safety regulations went into effect on January 1, 1968. The regulations significantly reduced traffic fatalities. Between 1968 and 1979, the annual motor vehicle death rate decreased 35.2 percent, from 5.4 to 3.5 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles. Of all the safety regulations, however, the most important and effective safety standard was the seatbelt. Seatbelts that attached across both the lap and the shoulder reduced the probability of serious injury in an accident by 64 percent and of fatalities by 32 percent for front-seat occupants.
In 1972, the NHTSA conducted its own investigation of the Corvair. It found, after extensive tests, that the vehicle handled sharp turns just as well as other light domestic cars sold in the same period. Furthermore, it reported that the car was no more prone to rollover than its competitors.
Primary Source: Federal Role in Traffic Safety: Hearings Before the Senate Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization of the Committee on Government Operations [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: Nader testified before a Senate committee that through manipulative advertising automobile manufacturers compounded their product's serious safety problems. For example, he states that "aggressive and ferocious" model names such as "Panther" or ads referring to potential Buick Skylark owners as "human cannonballs" caused impressionable teenagers to drive negligently, which directly contributed to increased death rates.
Annual Model Change[Mr. Nader:] The car buyer pays over $700, according to a study by MIT, Harvard, and University of Chicago economists, when he buys a new car for the cost of the annual model change, which is mostly stylistic in content. Consider how much safer today's automobile would be if over the past few decades the car buyer received annually a substantial safety advance, both in the operational and crash worthy aspects of the automobile, for that $700 payment.
Instead cars are being built which standing can kill adult and child pedestrians who fall or are inadvertently pushed into their sharp points and edges. Children playing have struck cars, like we all have when we were children, and there is quite a difference between striking a flat rear end of a car and the dagger fin of a Cadillac. A little girl in Kensington, Md., was killed by just such a dagger fin a few years ago.
And passengers die in collisions at speeds as low as 5 miles per hour.
Is it any wonder that at present rate at least one out of every two living Americans will either be killed or injured in an automobile collision? For those with a lifespan of 70 years ahead of them, the probabilities are considerably higher. Yet the orgy of expenditure for style, which is charged to the consumer every year, as entirely standard equipment, continues unabated. A style change for the rear end of a Mustang, for example, will cost the manufacturer close to $50 million.
There are those rare instances when the impressive containment of public self-criticism by auto executives exhaust itself temporarily. Such an instance occurred in January 1964 when Donald Frey a perceptive vice president of Ford Motor Co., told a gathering of auto engineers:
I believe that the amount of product innovation successfully introduced into the automobile is smaller today than in previous times and is still falling. The automatic transmission was the last major innovation of the industry.
The automatic transmission, you may recall, was first adopted on a mass-production basis in 1938–39. Henry Ford II seemed troubled by this same lack of innovation when he told the same audience:
When you think of the enormous progress of science over the last two generations, it is astonishing to realize that there is very little about the basic principles of today's automobiles that would seem strange and unfamiliar to the pioneers of our industry.… What we need even more than the refinement of old ideas is the ability to develop new ideas and put them to work.
The smog-ridden people of Los Angeles for many years have been troubled by the same thought as they struggled against an intransigent, unified industry that produced millions of little pollution factories on wheels and refused to apply the necessary remedial engineering to clean them up. Apparently, diagnosis is far from treatment. The 1966 Ford advertisements boast of "engineering magic." The expectant reader, rushing to read on, learns that this "magic" is composed of an optional stereosonic tape system and a station wagon tailgate that swings open for people and pulls down for cargo. With such "magic" our space endeavors would have gotten us no further to the moon than Mount Everest.
The annual model change ritual is not meaningful innovation for the public safety and welfare; its purpose is to "stir the animal" in the car buyer. It is aimed not at the reason of men but at their ids and hypogastria. Can there be anything less than a fundamental contempt for the consumer in the following advertisements:
Senator Curtis: I don't like to interrupt—
Mr. Nader: Yes, sir.
Senator Curtis: But I don't understand your language. "It is aimed not at the reason of men but at their ids and hypogastria." If I ever bought a car for those reasons nobody explained it to me. What does that mean?
Mr. Nader: The ids refer to, in traditional psychology, Senator, to that part of the subconscious which generates the aggressive instincts of man. The hypogastria refers to the lower region of the human abdomen. I shall give examples which will indicate just what I mean.
Senator Curtis: The ids refer to the subconscious aggressive pattern.
Mr. Nader: Yes, sir.
Senator Curtis: I want a car that I can really hit somebody and smash him dead, is that what you mean?
Mr. Nader: Well, you see, I am referring to the stimulants by the advertisements in the industry, Senator Curtis, the types of ads you see that say, "Let go of this trigger," and some other examples which I have here such as asking the reader of a Buick Skylark ad headed, "Son of Gun," asking this reader—and I quote from the ad:
Ever prodded a throttle with 445 pound-feet of torque coiled tightly at the end of it? Do that with one of these; you can start billing yourself as the human cannonball.
Another example taken from the radio: Teenagers can turn on the radio and hear an ad that begins with a deep growl. Is it a cue for Tarzan of the Apes? An announcement of a circus coming to town? By no means. It is the Pontiac widetrack tiger and the announcer urges the listener to come on down and ride the tiger at "Tiger Country," formerly known as your Pontiac dealer.
A 1966 Buick Riviera ad tries this sensual effect:
If there are two things that romantic Italians love, one of them is automobiles. Dashing, dramatic automobiles. Now, some people think Italy has a monopoly on the red-blooded cars that make hearts beat faster and the adrenalin flow. But those people have another think coming. The tuned car is here, Con Brio.
Other ads urge the potential driver to "drive it like you hate it."
Senator Curtis: Like you what?
Mr. Nader: "Like you hate it" or after spelling out the 400-plus horsepower, advising that "it's cheaper than psychiatry."
While the recent spate of Ford "safety ads," in response to a growing public outrage over unsafe design, urge the reader to "cultivate a safety state of mind … thinking safety," (and GM is doing the same) Ford continues to name its cars with such aggressive and ferocious titles as Comet, Meteor, Thunderbird, Cobra, Mustang (Mustang means "a wild, unbreakable horse"), and Marauder (which means literally "one who pillages and lays waste the countryside"). There is also the Plymouth Fury and Barracuda, the Oldsmobile Cutlass, and the Buick Wildcat—to name a few. And coming soon to join the menagerie on the highways are the Mercury Cougar and the Chevrolet Panther.
Senator Curtis: Now, let me ask you what does the name of an automobile have to do with the solid construction there or lack thereof?
Mr. Nader: It has to do with the problem that is before us, Senator, in two ways: One, it is a part of the communication of the concept of the automobile to the public. That communication comes heavily from the automobile manufacturers, I would say almost overwhelmingly. When impressionable people, particularly teenagers, are consistently exposed to this type of aggressive power and sensual insinuation it might have some transferral effect.
Senator Simpson: May I interrupt right here?
Mr. Nader: Yes, sir.
Senator Simpson: This doesn't happen in any other industry, or does it?
Mr. Nader: In transportation, sir?
Senator Simpson: In any kind.
Mr. Nader: In the cosmetics industry there may be rather imaginative titles, but I know of no other industry, besides the auto industry, that involves such a serious safety problem that engages in aggressive and provoking advertisements dealing with the operation and use of its products.
Incidentally, I might add that a tremendous amount of interest in research goes into the automobile company's choice of these names, that is when you want to choose whether to call a car a Panther or not you don't just pick it out of the dictionary. You search the literature to see the context in which the word "Panther" was and is used, and the image that the Panther gives in fiction, nonfiction, hunting materials, and so forth.
Senator Simpson: What would you be suggesting, just doing away with its advertising?
Mr. Nader: I would suggest—and in this rare instance, Senator Simpson, many automobile executives are in agreement with me—I would suggest that this advertising be toned down and that it be more informative and less provocative.
Senator Simpson: This committee has advocated that since its inception.
Mr. Nader: Pardon, sir?
Senator Simpson: This committee has advocated that since its inception.
Mr. Nader: I understand that, sir. I hope it will be listened to in the immediate future.
The second answer to your question is that it reflects a good deal about the automobile manufacturers' view of the automobile. When they consistently live in this dreamboat fairyland the operating atmosphere leans in this direction. The more they get into a type of fashion industry syndrome in producing a form of transportation that kills so many people, the more they are going to go away from the quality and functional aspects in their own thinking within the industry, and the more they are going to go to the fashion, the ephemeral, the trivial, and the superficial aspects—so that these words are not only a method of communication, they are also symptoms of the type of orientation within the industry.
Senator Curtis: You kind of lost me. I listen to radio and they tell me to put a tiger in my tank.
Does that make me a dangerous driver? Does it change the structure of the automobile I drive, if I would say not to that ad, and still not drive with utmost care, would it give me immunity?
Mr. Nader: Senator, the reception of the audience to the advertisements is not a uniform one. I would be the first to agree that you would not be within the most impressional class of receivers of this information.
Senator Curtis: You mean I am rather stupid?
Mr. Nader: No: on the contrary. This affects mostly, Senator—
Senator Curtis: But do you contend that the ad, and I don't even know what gasoline company promotes this, telling me to put a tiger in their tank, somehow contributes to automobile accidents and fixes the responsibility on manufacturers of gasoline and manufacturers of automobiles. What is your opinion on that?
Mr. Nader: Yes, Senator. Let me answer it this way: Unless the manufacturers have done studies which show no connection between the content of their advertising and the attitudes and behaviors of those who listen to and read their advertisement, then they are acting as imprudent businessmen. That is when you tell somebody that if he gets behind the wheel he can start labeling himself as a human cannonball, unless you have done studies that show no connection, the presumption is that there is some connection, that it is without any utility or any redeeming value whatsoever.
Senator Curtis: Would you go so far as to say that when an automobile company shows their car being driven or observed by a beautiful girl, that that is contributing to the divorce rate in the country?
Mr. Nader: I am restricting myself to the casualty rate, sir.
Senator Curtis: No; let me ask you. You have come up here with ideas and gastro-something or others, and unfolded something that is going on here. I want to ask you, in your approach to the psychology of advertising, are you contending that automobile manufacturers who show a nice shiny car driven by an attractive young lady, and if she gets out of the car or she looks at it or she exclaims concerning it, that that is contributing to the divorce rate in the country?
Mr. Nader: I wouldn't know, Senator. But I would say this: that anybody who—
Senator Curtis: You think it might, then?
Mr. Nader: Pardon?
Senator Curtis: You think it might?
Mr. Nader: It may and it may not. Unless there are studies that show there are not, I wouldn't engage in such advertising. I wouldn't on the one hand urge drivers to think safety, and then expose them to this type of advertising.
Senator Curtis: You advocate a lot of sophisticated type of thought control.
Mr. Nader: Pardon, sir?
Senator Curtis: You seem to advocate a rather sophisticated type of thought control.
Mr. Nader: No. I simply advocate a rather unsophisticated type of sanity in advertising copy. I hope you have the opportunity, Senator, to discuss this question with automobile executives who uniformly deplore this type of advertising, but say that if they don't do it their competitor will do it. They don't try to defend it themselves.
People Must be Heard
As Prof. Jeffrey O'Connell of the University of Illinois Law School asked recently in a letter to the New York Times, detailing some of these calculated appeals to power, speed and other aggressive instincts: "Shall the wolves be shepherds?"
The answer to this question must be "No." It must be "No" for two independently sufficient reasons.
First, a genuine democracy has to provide for the participation of the public in decisions relating to technology whose use is so fraught with tragedy to millions of people. There is an old Roman adage which says: "Whatever touches all should be decided by all." The automobile touches us all in the most ultimate ways. The safety the motorist gets when he buys his car should not be determined solely by manufacturers—especially a tightly knit few—whose interests are necessarily one of profit-parochialism. A democratic policy should not permit an industry to unilaterally decide how many years it wishes to hold back the installation of superior braking systems, safer tires, fuel tanks that do not rupture and incinerate passengers in otherwise survivable accidents—collapsible steering columns, safer instrument panels, steering assemblies, seat structures and frame strengths, or to engage in a stylistic orgy of vehicle-induced glare, chrome eyebrow bumpers and pedestrian impalers—to take only a few examples of many. Instead the amount of safety should be determined, and I stress this, by fuller dialog and resolution clash of values of the entire democratic community. This is hardly a new idea. Our country has applied such a philosophy long ago to other areas of safety—safety codes for buildings and factories, food and drug regulations, safety standards for aircraft, ships and trains, "safety" examinations for professional skills. However inadequate such rules and their administration are, they do represent progress when contrasted with the alternatives. They also represent society's decision that democratic participation is to extend to hazardous economic activities or products.
In the area of automobile design, this public participation to raise continuously the operational and crash worthy safety of motor vehicles does not exist. The automobile has been the "sacred cow." Because of the attenuated competition of a concentrated industry, product choices are being made, in effect, for the consumer by the manufacturers to the extent that they have muted the market signals which consumers would have ideally in exercising their choice or expressing their wishes. More significant, the public has not been able to make its collective judgments felt through the governmental process. This is the case because both the automobile and its maker are in the uniquely privileged position of being outside the law.…
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Whiteside, Thomas. The Investigation of Ralph Nader: General Motors vs. One Determined Man. New York: Arbor House, 1972.
Rowe, Jonathan. "Ralph Nader Reconsidered." The Washington Monthly 17, no. 2, March 1985.
Van Tune, C. "1965 Corvair Corsa Turbo." Motor Trend 42, August 1990, 122-124.
The Nader Page. Available online at http://www.nader.org/ (accessed April 2, 2003).