Ralph Nader Calls for Safety in the Auto Industry Part 1

About the journalist and muckraker Ralph Nader who wrote an expose on safety in the auto industry.



Dateline: New York, N.Y., Apr. 11, 1959.

By-line: Ralph Nader. In the late fifties and early sixties, Ralph Nader was a young lawyer neglecting a Hartford, Conn., practice to write about the auto industry. He had attended Princeton University on a scholarship, graduated magna cum laude, and gone on to Harvard Law School, from which he also graduated with distinction. At Harvard he first became interested in car safety. Writing for the weekly magazine The Nation, Nader prepared an article entitled "The Safe Car You Can't Buy."

The Big Beat: The shocking message of "The Safe Car You Can't Buy" was that the auto industry placed a premium on style, speed, and cost in designing cars but that its concern with safety was no more than a nod to a stepchild.

During the 1950s, 40,000 people a year died in the 5 million yearly car accidents. But because, according to one industry representative, "a square foot of chrome sells ten times more cars than the best safety-door latch," Detroit spent more time and money tuning car-door slams than developing seat belts or a steering wheel that wouldn't impale the driver in a head-on collision.

Actually, there was not much to develop. The safe car referred to in the title of Nader's article already existed by 1959. It was an experimental prototype that shielded its occupants from all but minor scratches in 50-mph head-on collisions. Built by the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, it had a strengthened body that didn't collapse into the passenger compartment during a crash, an interior without sharp and hard surfaces, and a restraining device that prevented occupants from ricocheting around the car's inside.

University and private research organizations estimated that from 20,000 to 30,000 lives could be saved every year if the Cornell car's safety features were used in mass-produced cars.

The popular myth was that traffic accidents and fatalities were inevitable; that as long as people drove too fast, no car could be safe. However, a Cornell study showed it was poor design, not speed, that killed. Researchers determined that even if no one drove above 60 mph, three quarters of the serious injuries would still occur.

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