NER Washington forum; Ralph Nader
It's always easier to design a machine safely than to expect perfect behavior on the part of human beings at all times under all conditions handling unsafe vehicles. The voice you just heard was that of Washington DC attorney Ralph Nader author of the controversy old book Unsafe at Any Speed. And our guest this week on the NE our Washington forum. A weekly program probing the significant issues before us as a nation. Today a discussion on the continued dangers in American automobiles. This program was produced for the national educational radio network through the facilities of W am you FM American University Radio in Washington DC. I'm Bill Greenwood. Attorney author Ralph Nader touched off a national furor with the publication of his non fiction novel Unsafe at Any Speed. The work brought congressional investigations and demands for changes in American auto designs changes that Nader
thinks are too slow in coming. Nader is a 33 year old attorney. He moved to Washington from Connecticut where he declined a lucrative law practice to continue his fight against the automobile industry. That's a battle that began during his law school days resulting in the publication of his book and climaxing with a full scale congressional investigation far from over and Nader's battle continues. He appeared recently before a Senate Commerce Committee hearing to demand faster implementation of government proposed safety standards. Mr. Nader you've attained quite a reputation as somewhat of an automobile safety expert as I just said as certainly as a result of your original investigation just what were your original findings. Well basically that the role of the vehicle was far more important in preventing accidents and particularly in
preventing injuries and deaths in an accident than any official body was willing to concede. The principal of the of the vehicles roll is quite simple to conceive. First of all it's quite clear that the adequacy of a driver is not only a function of his own skills and attitudes but it's also a function of the adequacy of the vehicle that he's handling. And if it can't break out of quickly if the tires don't perform properly if the suspension is very soft and doesn't allow the kind of handling to avoid emergency situations then they're more likely to be accidents. But quite as important and probably more important. Is that once an accident does occur whether it's due to a high wave defect or a vehicle defect or driver failure. Once an X occurs the way in which a occupant in a car is killed or injured depends entirely on the vehicle because the killing and injuring is done inside the car by and large when the vehicle and a man interact and
there is the greatest role of the vehicle to protect people in collisions. To make one axis do occur occurs safely. Or say just how big is this vehicular safety problem. Well I think it's massive. First of all we have 53000 deaths over 4 million injuries a accident injury rate that will kill or injure one out of every two Americans. The role of the vehicle here is extremely important. It's important primarily because the engineering factors are always the one that can be handled the easiest in terms of effectiveness in terms of lasting enduring the nature of the change in terms of cost in terms of administrative feasibility. Now just to give you a simple example people are now being killed in collisions under 10 miles per hour. There is absolutely no reason why a car cannot be built economically that will protect people against injury and collisions up to 50 miles per hour and make higher
collisions survivable. And roughly 75 percent of all motorist deaths and serious injuries occur in collisions under 50 miles per hour. And I think this was quite well documented in the first feasibility report of the New York state safety car project which is designed to build just this kind of vehicle in a few numbers in order to show the country what can be done what has contributed to this lack of safety in the manufacture of vehicles. Well for years until last September the industry has never had to meet any outsider public meaningful safety standards. It could do precisely what it wanted to do and it chose to concentrate heavily on expensive styling changes and to depreciate the role of engineering innovation from year to year. And when you don't have any external restraints on a company or an industry's behavior and you don't have the kind of internal processes
that will allow engineers to push their point of view over that of the stylist and management then you're going to get an irresponsible trend. And this is what's what we have been having in the last two decades a trend which in effect is peddling automobiles the way people peddle ladies hats. What exactly do you mean by that last statement. Well I look at them most of the advertisement and look at the appeals to customers. For a pro for purchasing new cars the appeals are heavily oriented toward emotional and non engineering feelings. The vacation land image the pretty girl by the car the huge horsepower race the implications of aggressiveness and all kinds of interior furnishings that can be chosen by the car buyers. This is all together with the aggressive names like cougar and barracuda. This is all designed to transfer the attention of the consumer
from the area of engineering quality and innovation over to the area of stylistic change whimsy and all a visible but superficial things which the industry likes to blanket the consuming world with. Now when this happens to consequences occur first there's very little consumer sovereignty just as there is very little consumer sovereignty in buying hats ladies hats that is. And secondly the manufacturers can then reduce the area of informed choice for the consumer and in effect control the kind of response that comes back to the cut to the producers this is well known behavior on the part of all I got ballistic or highly concentrated industries that produce a consumer product. They're beginning to compete more and more about less and less. You talk about consumer sovereignty would you elaborate on that please. Yes the theory a theory of the free market system is that
a number of producers will throw onto the market a number of products and judging on the basis of the product's quality and its price and the customer will make his choice and in effect to penalize the poor bargain by not buying. And who award the better bargain by purchasing this in effect stimulates producers to compete for the customer's favor and to give him ever better bargains and better quality. Now if the customer can't find out about the safety performance of the automobile. If you can't compare one car against another saying break stopping distance and other features then how is he going to make an intelligent choice and get the workings of the market system into operation. The fact is that he can't. The fact is that he is not now choosing on the basis of quality. He's choosing on the basis of brand name stimulants and terms of advertising and on the number of dealers that happen to be in his locality at any given time. In your book Unsafe at Any Speed you point out many cars and give specific
examples of the unsafe characteristics of them. A lot of my colleagues have ridicule me for driving what they call now around Nader special being a quarter of a year. Exactly how unsafe are cars such as Corvair for example. Well of course all cars don't meet the needs of safety protection which the people deserve. But some cars quite obviously are worse than others. At the corner there until the 1964 model had a simple type rear suspension system which allowed this car to go out of control particularly on curbs and situations of driving where other cars would not have gone out of control. This is called rear rear end breakaway with the tuck under of the rear wheels. This was a extremely dangerous hazard which was compound it by the location of the fuel tank in the Corvair up
front and many other features the Corvair not the least of which were the steering column which could ram rod back into the driver at a very low speed. The Left Front collision these and other factors made the Corvair an extremely dangerous car even by standards of the industry at that time. Could you tell me what other cars may have important unsafe features. Yes for example similar handling problems to the early Corvair even today in the Volkswagen and the Renault DAW Fein and in one field model. If you look at the tech another area if you look at the Toronado the Toronado is fine with those too clean for a light fender. Points are the kinds of hazards that could severely aggravate a pedestrian injury. They're also the kind of hazard which could hook the car onto a guardrail and in fact used to be a kind of
lever which would severely enlarge the kind of action and action of seriousness of any given collision. There are a lot of other features that can be pointed to in various cars but most of them have them in common. A seat rip up far too easily in collisions doors that pop open a steering columns that don't take energy properly instrument panels that don't yield adequately sharp knobs still abound and the ridiculous high topped type of vehicle with no upper center post which exposes a car even more to the hazards of being crushed in a side collision and a rollover. And incidentally and makes attaching the full complement seat belt a very difficult task more than 50 percent of the cars today by the way are sold hard tops. If I wanted to buy another car say today how could I get information on the safety specifications of the vehicle. Well you right now you cannot get it from the company. The new legislation
authorizes the government to require the company to give a safety performance information to the customer in a uniform way so you can compare one make against another. The government has been dragging its speed here it hasn't even begun enforcing this part of the legislation but hopefully it will do so someday. Consumers Union which publishes Consumer Reports gives some interesting information on the roadworthiness of cars. A new magazine called Road Test magazine out of Los Angeles gives also dish no information on the handling and tire structure tryer performance and braking of cars. And that's about it. There's very little other information that is available to the customer and virtually none of it is available and convenient at the scene of buying this site. Since the publication of your book Unsafe at Any Speed Have you noticed any significant changes in auto safety either on the drawing board or in actual
manufacture. Yes the safety engineers and industry have moved and moved out of their little cubby holes and are given offices. They have a little more authority. There's a little more research and development and testing and safety in the industry. And I think that even top management now as I heard the word that they'd better get moving in terms of giving people a more humane and a more forgiving automobile one that will give them a chance of surviving without injury or with minimal injury. And the overwhelming number of collisions today that are taking just thousands of lives and severely injury and millions more. What specific safety standards would you say you needed. Well of course the areas are innumerable. But I think the leading ones right now relate to anti-skid braking systems that in effect will avoid the skid into a collision type accident. I think a much better tire performance properly size tires tires that have better traction and better cornering capability.
I think a better handling capabilities on automobiles. Those are three important areas in the roadworthiness an area of crashworthiness of the total elimination of exposed sharp edges and penetrating features in a collision such as a steering column. There's no reason why steering column has to impale a driver like a javelin. Then the passenger compartment should be in such a way as to protect the individual in a collision and the entire structure of the automobile when it is in a collision should collapse in such a way as to reduce markedly the level of force before it is transmitted to the passenger compartment and the occupants. Those are the principal features and I would add one more which is now available and that is the use of the full complement of shoulder harness lap type seat belt. Unfortunately the industry's been dragging its feet and not giving the public a convenient automatic type belt
that doesn't give you that imprisoned feeling. Hopefully this automatic type belt will be in production in next year or two but until now we have to do the best that the industry gives us and that is now available. Who do you think should take the lead in forcing the industry to implement these safety features. I think three forces basically. One is the government which now has ample authority to require them to upgrade their safety levels every year. I think secondly the insurance industry certainly should perform a a room are responsible role and go after safer cars if only to reduce their losses if indeed the insurance industry claims it's losing as much money as it as it as it purports to. I think thirdly both the public and public organizations like the Triple-A clubs can begin to demand year to year increments in safety and become much more critical of the sloppy level of quality and the stagnant technology that makes up today's
automobiles. All of these three forces congregating on the manufacturers in Michigan I think will finally get as this great Goliath of an industry which is a been wallowing in such a technological rut so profitably over the years are finally moving again. You have talked about needed federal regulation and indeed the government has implemented a set of safety standards. The automobile industry says now that they can't implement these on schedule or at least all of them. What is your opinion of that auto makers statement. Well there was a Senate hearing last week on this subject and I think it was brought out quite adequately that the automakers put pressure on the end on the agency that they got proposed standards watered down to a ridiculous level in their final form that these standards will virtually do nothing for the added safety of 968 cars and that the industry did not disclose any information to the agency it would have helped the agency do its job
and that the industry at accessibly exaggerated its lead time problems and just showed once more how little the industry has done and has been willing to do over the years in terms of safety. And it showed once more how necessary it is to. And Senator Warren Magnuson terms get tough. He made it very clear as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee that nothing's going to happen until the agency gets tough with the guy with the automobile industry. Which agency are you referring to. This is the National Traffic Safety Agency that was set up last September under the new legislation. Do you feel these government safety standards are adequate Do you feel perhaps they go too far or not far enough or are in fact adequate. Well the ones issued in January are grossly inadequate. I think the best way to measure them is to say that existing 967 cars can meet or exceed virtually every one of these standards and the standards are for one thousand sixty eight cars. But all happily we have an opportunity every year to increase the strength of the
standards. So now we have to look for 969 and future models. You also talk about the insurance companies being to blame for this lack of safety would you elaborate on that Mr. Nader. Well the insurance company obviously has a deep interest in automobile safety but unfortunately it is not pressured the auto industry to produce a for automobiles over the years the way it has done at the shipping shipping industries and in many areas of our factory factories. Now why hasn't it been more active in focusing on the role of the vehicle pressuring industry tailoring its rating policies to include the vehicle as well as the driver. And in many other areas such as research and development on its own part. I think the answer is that the insurance industry is afraid of the auto industry. First of all the auto industry is a customer of the insurance industry. Secondly the insurance
industry doesn't want to severely enraged the auto industry because this may lead to an investigation that runs over into the whole auto insurance situation. Thirdly I think the insurance industry has been willing to cover higher losses by getting higher premiums. The states have allowed them to get higher premiums. And since the higher premium allows a greater magnitude of investment income the industry's been able to live with it they're getting more money from their investments now than their premium income. I think finally the situation between the auto insurance industry is one similar to many other large industries in the country. And there's an accommodation that is generated an interlock of interests and convenience is a kind of live and let live attitude. And that is very very inimical to the public interest.
We hear a lot about professional societies for auto design engineers auto safety engineers do you feel that these are adequate that these societies are helpful in implementing auto safety standards. I think that's one of our main problems that the engineering and scientific professions have been organized over the years and in technical societies which on issue after issue have to have expressed total conformity with the particular industry's interest whether it's the automobile industry or the gas pipeline industry or whatnot. This is an unfortunate situation because the entire integrity of our profession depends on its ability to in effect put safety and other public interest factors above profit and above the more commercial interests of corporate management. And if these organizations are taken over as they have been taken over if their committees are right the safety standards are represented entirely by company employees on company missions then we're not going to get any independent
professional posture in these areas. It's looking out for the public safety. On the subject of public safety naturally the nation as a whole hears a great deal about the National Safety Council. Do you feel they are a significant force in auto safety. Well the National Safety Council has over the years represented the industrial interest and safety. That is any auto field it is concentrated almost all its efforts on exhorting the driver to be more careful. A rather tenuous endeavor at best. It is ignored the role of the vehicle in fact it has been a protective factor for the industry because for so many years people have relied on the National Safety Council to serve the public interest. And unfortunately they have been deeply deceived and deluded. If you look at the trustees and the board of directors the council we'll see an overwhelming industry representation as is also true in the area of dues. Unfortunately the in the National Safety Council has shown no signs of
reform in the past year during the controversy over safety. And it will have to be in effect bypassed by new and more vibrant institutions. Could you say then that there appears examples of coersion between of the automakers their engineering societies and even the Safety Council. Well it's just a simply a kind of of. Coordination of interests. The auto industry has the money it can hire the people that will do its bidding. It doesn't pay to fight the auto industry. It doesn't Up until recently it has gotten nothing but ice decision ostracism and the antagonism and most people are willing to in effect follow the party line as long as they're getting the weekly salary. That's true in the National Safety Council and it's true for the clerical and the executive people that run these professional organizations. Ralph you say it doesn't pay to fight the auto industry and yet you took on this giant just
quiet did you began this battle. Well I was really extremely extremely disappointed with the forces that were supposedly looking out for the public's interest in automobile safety. I began my inquiry when I was at the Harvard Law School and I always looked upon the law as a contributor to the public safety. But I saw the law as it was written to be a reflection of the highly distorted alignments in the country as a whole that is the entire brunt of the law was on the driver licensing him and punishing him for some reason. The vehicle was excluded from the rule of law. The manufacturer didn't have to adhere to any meaningful public safety standards. The vehicles road wasn't investigated in an accident. There were no penalties on the manufacture. In other words there was a clear exemption from public responsibility and so I decided to get to the bottom of this and as I made my inquiries more and more doors were slammed and in front of me I
couldn't get information. Of course the more difficult it is to get information the harder I press. And I thought it was an outrageous situation where an industry with all the money and talent that the auto industry represents a subdued this engineering talent and began to put out a car is progressively worse against the against the feasible level of safety technology from year to year. Progressively worse in such a way that we had a major highway epidemic on our hands. The fourth leading cause of death in this country. I didn't think this should be tolerated. One bet and tried to do my best that it should not have been tolerated. At this point can you summarize what you feel is your attitude of the auto makers toward safety. My attitude or their at their attitude at this point. I think their attitude can be summarized in this way. They finally now at the highest levels of management realize that the country is serious about getting safer cars.
I think however that much of this management is obsolete that they come from another era an era which says that you can always get a controversy to blow over if you just hang in long enough. An area that has grown up in an area in an area where stylistic pornography has taken precedence over engineering integrity. So we're going to get a push and a pull at high corporate levels and the degree to which these gigantic companies move is not going to depend on any internal resurrections or reformations. It's going to pound on continual meticulous and diverse pressures applied by government and by the marketplace and by private organizations and other industries. Onto the auto industry. In light of this attitude and certainly in connection with your efforts on that part do you feel us safe car is feasible and if it will come in our generation.
Well first of all the feasibility of a safe car is clearly documented. The country that can engage in such fantastic technologies is computers in space and defense and many other areas can certainly build a car that protects people in collisions and makes life accidents less likely. The New York studies here the New York Safety Car program shows this quite clearly and very few engineers in the industry will dispute the question is not whether a safe car is feasible but whether it is likely as a matter of fact. I would say that if the government does a job which the legislation is authorized to do by the fall of 972 cars should be rolling off the production lines which will protect people from injury and collisions up to 50 miles per hour. And again make higher levels a survivable. This would see very early cut into the level of casualties and serious injuries. Even if we don't avoid a single accident and that many of those actions will be failsafe they will not necessarily result in death
and injury as they do now. And I think someday will look back on a time. In the last 30 40 years when people were killed in automobile collisions at 10 20 30 40 50 miles per hour. We'll look back with the same kind of disgusted incredulity as we now look back at the way many of our working men were killed and are grossly unsafe conditions and our factories. At the turn of the century it's simply a matter of raising the priority of safety in the hierarchy of manufacturing production values. It's simply a matter of recognizing that everybody has certain rights a physical security which should not be threatened or invaded or overcome by deficient and defective products whether they be automobiles or pesticides or drugs. Mr. Nader Unfortunately our time is up we want to thank you very much for being our guest this week on the NPR Washington forum. You've been listening to a discussion on the
continued dangers in American automobiles featuring Washington D.C. attorney Ralph Nader author of the book Unsafe at Any Speed and a witness during a recent Senate Commerce Committee hearings into proposed federal safety standards for automobiles. This program was produced at the national educational radio network through the facilities of W am you FM American University Radio in Washington DC. Yes scheduled for an appearance on future editions of the NE our Washington forum include Dr. Glenn TC Board chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission former Florida governor Farris Bryant now director of the cabinet level office of emergency planning and chairman of the president's commission on intergovernmental relations. We will have the honorable Thomas Johnson assistant press secretary to the president of the United States and will provide extended coverage of Senate Commerce Committee hearings into the financing of
educational broadcasting. This is Bill Greenwood inviting you to listen again next week for another edition of the NE our Washington forum a weekly program probing the significant issues before us as a nation. This is the national educational radio network.
- NER Washington forum
- Ralph Nader
- Producing Organization
- WAMU-FM (Radio station : Washington, D.C.)
- National Association of Educational Broadcasters, WAMU-FM (Radio station : Washington, D.C.)
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- Ralph Nader discusses automobile design and safety.
- Series Description
- Discussion series featuring a prominent figure affecting federal government policy.
- Public Affairs
- Media type
Host: Greenwood, Bill
Interviewee: Nader, Ralph
Producing Organization: WAMU-FM (Radio station : Washington, D.C.)
Producing Organization: National Association of Educational Broadcasters, WAMU-FM (Radio station : Washington, D.C.)
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 67-24-3 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- MLA: “NER Washington forum; Ralph Nader.” 1967-04-10. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. November 30, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-6m335s9z>.
- APA: NER Washington forum; Ralph Nader. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-6m335s9z