By Matt Wolfe
The man who became the first advocate of automotive safety standards
Ralph Nader became the face of automotive safety through his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. The book was a critique of automobile manufacturers and the occupant safety of their vehicles. Nader levied criticisms across the entire industry for vehicle crash-worthiness, the automobile’s effect on air pollution and stubbornness by many manufacturers to introduce new safety features that might compromise style. The book took particular aim at Chevrolet’s Corvair, a rear-engine mid-size sedan, whose tricky handling had resulted in numerous crashes and over 100 lawsuits against General Motors.
Some automakers attempted to downplay Nader’s claims, but in spite of the blockades, he pressed on with his agenda. By the spring of 1966, Unsafe at Any Speed was a best seller in nonfiction. The publicity Nader’s book generated for automotive safety prompted legislation to create the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an agency devoted to saving lives by reducing the number and severity vehicle-related crashes. That legislation also mandated a number of safety improvements to automobiles, such as seat belts and collapsible steering columns, setting a precedent for continued government mandates of vehicle safety standards which continues today. The existence of NHTSA has contributed to a steady decline in traffic-related deaths since their peak in 1972, even as the number of vehicles on the road continues to grow.