Here’s something I never thought I’d say: Ralph Nader is fascinating to speak with, and I admire and respect his contribution to the auto industry.
That’s an about-face for me. When I discovered cars in the early 1970s, Nader was the enemy.
Nader’s the one who really opened the door to government oversight of the automobile industry with his landmark 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed, and his testimony before Congress the following year that helped lead to the creation of the agency that morphed into the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
When I got my first car, catalytic converters were just coming out. So were seat belt interlock systems, unleaded fuel and a whole host of technologies that made nearly all domestic and most foreign cars sluggish and unreliable.
The automobile today is safer and cleaner because of Nader. The Center for Auto Safety calculates that the book, and Nader’s activism, are directly responsible for saving 3.5 million lives.
Clarence Ditlow, the center’s executive director, says: “3.5 million represents the difference between the number of deaths that there would have been if the death rate had stayed at 5.50 per hundred million VMT (vehicle miles traveled) in 1966 versus what it went down to in each subsequent year, falling to 1.07 by 2014.
“Deaths have been saved by traffic laws (seat belt use, speed limits, helmet and drunk driving laws), safer roads, vehicle safety standards and vehicle safety improvements spurred by consumer demand for more safety after Unsafe at Any Speed,” Ditlow said.
Only one chapter in Nader’s book deals with the Chevrolet Corvair. Another warns of the pollution created by automobiles and uses Los Angeles as an example. Last week in northeast China, smog was so bad that the air was considered hazardous to human health. The pictures are shocking and sad. Nader helped prevent that from happening here.
I recently asked Nader what motivated him to tackle automobile safety and emissions in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Back then, safety didn’t click with consumers. For example, some automakers offered seats belts as optional equipment and saw take rates of about 2 percent. Pollution from automobiles probably ranked even lower on people’s list of concerns.