Unsafe at Any Speed
Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile by Ralph Nader
Ralph Nader
Ralph Nader is an American political activist, as well as an author, lecturer, and attorney. Areas of particular concern to Nader include consumer protection, humanitarianism, environmentalism, and democratic government....

, published in 1965, is a book detailing resistance by car manufacturers to the introduction of safety
Safety is the state of being "safe" , the condition of being protected against physical, social, spiritual, financial, political, emotional, occupational, psychological, educational or other types or consequences of failure, damage, error, accidents, harm or any other event which could be...

 features, like seat belt
Seat belt
A seat belt or seatbelt, sometimes called a safety belt, is a safety harness designed to secure the occupant of a vehicle against harmful movement that may result from a collision or a sudden stop...

s, and their general reluctance to spend money on improving safety. It was a pioneering work, openly polemical but containing substantial references and material from industry insiders. It made Nader a household name.


Unsafe at Any Speed is often characterized as the book "about the Corvair
Chevrolet Corvair
-First generation :The 1960 Corvair 500 and 700 series four-door sedans were conceived as economy cars offering few amenities in order to keep the price competitive, with the 500 selling for under $2,000...

", though only one of the book's eight chapters covers the Corvair. The theme of tire pressures chosen for comfort rather than safety is recurrent, and the main theme throughout is the way in which the automobile industry evaded even well-founded and technically informed criticism.

Organization and content

Each of the book's chapters covers a different aspect of automotive safety:

"The Sporty Corvair"

The subject for which the book is probably most widely known, the rear-engined Chevrolet Corvair, is covered in Chapter 1—"The Sporty Corvair-The One-Car Accident". This relates to the first (1960–1963) models that had a swing-axle suspension
Swing axle
A swing axle is a simple type of independent suspension first used in early aircraft , such as the Sopwith and Fokker, usually with rubber bungee and no damping....

 design which was prone to "tuck under" in certain circumstances. In substitution for the cost-cutting lack of a front stabilizer bar (anti-roll bar), Corvairs required tire
A tire or tyre is a ring-shaped covering that fits around a wheel rim to protect it and enable better vehicle performance by providing a flexible cushion that absorbs shock while keeping the wheel in close contact with the ground...

 pressures which were outside of the tire manufacturer's recommended tolerances; an unusually high front:rear differential (15psi front, 26psi rear, when cold; 18 psi and 30psi hot). The tire pressures were more critical than for most contemporaneous designs, but this was not clearly stated to Chevrolet salespeople and Corvair owners. According to the standards laid down by the relevant industry body, the Tire and Rim Association, the pressures also rendered the front tires overloaded when there were two or more passengers on board. An unadvertised at-cost option (#696) included upgraded springs and dampers, front anti-roll bars and rear-axle-rebound straps to prevent tuck-under. Aftermarket kits were also available, such as the EMPI Camber Compensator, for the knowledgeable owner. The suspension was modified for 1964 models, with inclusion of a standard front anti-roll bar and a transverse-mounted rear spring. In 1965, the totally redesigned four-link, fully independent rear suspension
Independent suspension
Independent suspension is a broad term for any automobile suspension system that allows each wheel on the same axle to move vertically independently of each other. This is contrasted with a beam axle, live axle or deDion axle system in which the wheels are linked – movement on one side affects...

  maintained a constant camber angle
Camber angle
thumb|100px|From the front of the car, a right wheel with a negative camber angleCamber angle is the angle made by the wheels of a vehicle; specifically, it is the angle between the vertical axis of the wheels used for steering and the vertical axis of the vehicle when viewed from the front or...

 at the wheels. Corvairs from 1965 were not prone to the formerly characteristic tuck-under crashes.

George Caramagna, the Chevrolet suspension mechanic (who, Nader learned, had fought management over omission of the vital anti-sway bar that they were forced to install in later models) was vital to this issue. The missing bar had caused many crashes and it was Caramagna who precipitated the whole controversy by staying his ground on the issue.

"Disaster deferred"

Chapter 2 levels criticism on auto design elements such as instrument panels and dashboard
A dashboard is a control panel placed in front of the driver of an automobile, housing instrumentation and controls for operation of the vehicle....

s that were often brightly finished with chrome and glossy enamels which could reflect sunlight or the headlights of oncoming motor vehicles into the driver's eyes. This problem, according to Nader, was well known by persons in the industry, but little was done to correct it.
Apart from some of the examples given in the Corvair chapter, Nader offers much about the gear shift
Gear shift
The gear shift is the part of the gearbox which has the shift forks and allows the contact from the driver to the synchronization. Most of the time they are so much like the gear counter plus the reverse gear. And they make it possible to choose the gear and to switch this in or out...

 quadrants on earlier cars fitted with automatic transmission
Automatic transmission
An automatic transmission is one type of motor vehicle transmission that can automatically change gear ratios as the vehicle moves, freeing the driver from having to shift gears manually...

. Several examples are given of persons accidentally being run over, or cars that turned into runaways because the driver operating the vehicle at the time of the accident was not familiar with its shift pattern and would shift into reverse when intending to shift to park. Nader makes an appeal to the auto industry to standardize gearshift patterns between makes and models as a safety issue.

Early automatic transmissions, including GM's Hydra-Matic, Packard's Ultramatic
For the Voigtländer SLR camera, see Voigtländer Ultramatic CSUltramatic was the trademarked name of the Packard Motor Car Company's automatic transmission introduced in 1949 and produced until 1956 at Packard's Detroit, Michigan factory....

, and Borg Warner's automatic used by a number of independent manufacturers (Rambler
Nash Rambler
The Nash Rambler was a North American automobile produced by the Nash Motors division of Nash-Kelvinator Corporation from 1950–55.The Nash Rambler established a new segment in the automobile market and is widely acknowledged to be the first successful modern American compact...

, Studebaker
Studebaker Corporation was a United States wagon and automobile manufacturer based in South Bend, Indiana. Founded in 1852 and incorporated in 1868 under the name of the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company, the company was originally a producer of wagons for farmers, miners, and the...

) used a pattern of "P N D L R" which put Reverse at the bottom of the quadrant, next to Low. Drivers still used to moving the shift lever all the way down for "first gear" on a manual shift would accidentally select "R" and would unexpectedly move the car backwards. In addition, other manufacturers such as Chrysler, used a push-button selector to select gear ranges. Ford was the first to use the "P R N D L" pattern which separated Reverse from forward ranges by Neutral. Eventually this pattern became the standard for all automatic-shift cars.

Chevrolet's Powerglide
The Powerglide is a two-speed automatic transmission designed by General Motors. It was available primarily on Chevrolet from January, 1950 through 1973, although some Pontiac models also used this automatic transmission, extensively on models produced for the Canadian market with Chevrolet...

, at least as seen on the Corvair, used a "R N D L" pattern which separated the Reverse from the Drive gears by neutral in the ideal way, but which had no "P" selection, relying instead on a separate hand brake when parking.

Chapter 2 also exposes problems in workmanship and the failure of companies to honor warranties.

"The second collision"

Chapter 3 documents the history of crash science focusing on the effect on the body as it collides with the car as the car hits another object (the second collision
Second Impact (safety)
The second impact is the impact suffered between a vehicle occupant and the vehicle he or she is riding in during some kind of safety incident. The first impact is the impact between the vehicle and another object...

). Nader argues that much knowledge was available to designers by the early 1960s but it was largely ignored within the American automotive industry. There are in-depth discussions about the steering assembly
Steering is the term applied to the collection of components, linkages, etc. which will allow a vessel or vehicle to follow the desired course...

, instrument panel
A dashboard is a control panel placed in front of the driver of an automobile, housing instrumentation and controls for operation of the vehicle....

, windshield
The windshield or windscreen of an aircraft, car, bus, motorbike or tram is the front window. Modern windshields are generally made of laminated safety glass, a type of treated glass, which consists of two curved sheets of glass with a plastic layer laminated between them for safety, and are glued...

, passenger restraint
Seat belt
A seat belt or seatbelt, sometimes called a safety belt, is a safety harness designed to secure the occupant of a vehicle against harmful movement that may result from a collision or a sudden stop...

, and the passenger compartment.

"The power to pollute"

Chapter 4 documents the automobile's impact on air pollution and its contribution to smog
Smog is a type of air pollution; the word "smog" is a portmanteau of smoke and fog. Modern smog is a type of air pollution derived from vehicular emission from internal combustion engines and industrial fumes that react in the atmosphere with sunlight to form secondary pollutants that also combine...

, with a particular focus on Los Angeles
Los Ángeles
Los Ángeles is the capital of the province of Biobío, in the commune of the same name, in Region VIII , in the center-south of Chile. It is located between the Laja and Biobío rivers. The population is 123,445 inhabitants...


"The engineers"

Chapter 5 is about Detroit automotive engineers' general unwillingness to focus on road-safety improvements for fear of alienating the buyer or making cars too expensive. Nader counters by pointing out that, at the time, annual (and unnecessary) styling changes added on average about $700 to the consumer cost of a new car. This compared to an average expenditure in safety by the automotive companies of about twenty-three cents per car.

"The stylists"

Chapter 6 explores the excessive ornamentation that appeared on cars, particularly in the late 1950s, and the dominance of car design over good engineering. Of the 1950s designs, Nader notes "bumpers shaped like sled-runners and sloping grille work above the bumpers, which give the effect of 'leaning into the wind', increase ... the car's potential for exerting down-and-under pressures on the pedestrian." See current practice at Pedestrian safety through vehicle design
Pedestrian safety through vehicle design
Almost two-thirds of the 1.2 million people killed annually in road traffic crashes worldwide are pedestrians. Despite the magnitude of the problem, most attempts at reducing pedestrian deaths have focused solely on education and traffic regulation...


"The traffic safety establishment"

Subtitled "Damn the driver and spare the car," Chapter 7 discusses the way the blame for accidents and fatalities was placed on the driver. The book claims that the road safety mantra called the "Three E's" ("Engineering, Enforcement and Education") was created by the industry in the 1920s to distract attention from the real problems of vehicle safety, such as the fact that some were sold with tires that could not bear the weight of a fully loaded vehicle. To the industry, he said "Enforcement" and "Education" meant the driver, while "Engineering" was all about the road. As late as 1965, he noted, 320 million federal dollars were allocated to highway beautification, while just $500,000 was dedicated to highway safety.

"The coming struggle for safety"

Chapter 8, the concluding chapter, suggests that the automotive industry should be forced by government to pay greater attention to safety in the face of mounting evidence about preventable death and injury.

Industry response

Nader claims that GM responded to Nader's criticism of the Corvair by trying to destroy Nader's image and to silence him. It "(1) conducted a series of interviews with acquaintances of the plaintiff, "questioning them about, and casting aspersions upon [his] political, social, racial and religious views; his integrity; his sexual proclivities and inclinations; and his personal habits"; (2) kept him under surveillance in public places for an unreasonable length of time; (3) caused him to be accosted by girls for the purpose of entrapping him into illicit relationships (4) made threatening, harassing and obnoxious telephone calls to him; (5) tapped his telephone and eavesdropped, by means of mechanical and electronic equipment, on his private conversations with others; and (6) conducted a "continuing" and harassing investigation of him."

On March 22, 1966, GM President James Roche
James Roche (General Motors)
James M. Roche was an American statistician who served as the Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board at General Motors Corporation. He is credited for promoting racial equality within General Motors ....

 was forced to appear before a United States Senate
United States Senate
The United States Senate is the upper house of the bicameral legislature of the United States, and together with the United States House of Representatives comprises the United States Congress. The composition and powers of the Senate are established in Article One of the U.S. Constitution. Each...

 subcommittee, and to apologize to Nader for the company's campaign of harassment
Harassment covers a wide range of behaviors of an offensive nature. It is commonly understood as behaviour intended to disturb or upset, and it is characteristically repetitive. In the legal sense, it is intentional behaviour which is found threatening or disturbing...

 and intimidation
Intimidation is intentional behavior "which would cause a person of ordinary sensibilities" fear of injury or harm. It's not necessary to prove that the behavior was so violent as to cause terror or that the victim was actually frightened.Criminal threatening is the crime of intentionally or...

. Nader later successfully sued GM for excessive invasion of privacy. It was the money from this case that allowed him to lobby for consumer rights, leading to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency‎ and the Clean Air Act
Clean Air Act
A Clean Air Act is one of a number of pieces of legislation relating to the reduction of airborne contaminants, smog and air pollution in general. The use by governments to enforce clean air standards has contributed to an improvement in human health and longer life spans...

, among other things.

Other criticism

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a press release dated 12 August 1972, setting out the findings of 1971 NHTSA testing—after the Corvair had been out of production for more than three years. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is an agency of the Executive Branch of the U.S. government, part of the Department of Transportation...

 (NHTSA) had conducted a series of comparative tests in 1971 studying the handling of the 1963 Corvair and four contemporary cars, a Ford Falcon, Plymouth Valiant
Plymouth Valiant
The Plymouth Valiant is an automobile manufactured by the Plymouth division of Chrysler Corporation in the United States from 1960 to 1976. It was created to give the company an entry in the compact car market emerging in the late 1950s...

, Volkswagen Beetle
Volkswagen Beetle
The Volkswagen Type 1, widely known as the Volkswagen Beetle or Volkswagen Bug, is an economy car produced by the German auto maker Volkswagen from 1938 until 2003...

, Renault Dauphine
Renault Dauphine
Renault Dauphine is a rear-engined economy car manufactured by Renault in one body style — a three-box, four-door sedan — as the successor to the Renault 4CV, with over two million examples marketed worldwide during its production from 1956-1967....

—along with a second generation Corvair with revised suspension design. The subsequent 143-page report (PB 211-015, available from NTIS
National Technical Information Service
The National Technical Information Service is an agency within the United States Department of Commerce that serves as the U.S. government repository for research and development results and for other information produced by and for the government as well as a variety of public and private sources...

) reviewed a series of actual handling tests designed to evaluate the handling and stability under extreme conditions; a review of national accident data compiled by insurance companies and traffic authorities for the cars in the test—and a review of related General Motors/Chevrolet internal letters, memos, tests, reports, etc. regarding the Corvair's handling. NHTSA went on to contract a three man advisory panel of independent professional engineers to review the scope and competency of their tests. This review panel then issued its own 24-page report (PB 211-014, available from NTIS
National Technical Information Service
The National Technical Information Service is an agency within the United States Department of Commerce that serves as the U.S. government repository for research and development results and for other information produced by and for the government as well as a variety of public and private sources...

), which concluded that "the 1960-63 Corvair compares favorably with contemporary vehicles used in the tests...the handling and stability performance of the 1960-63 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover, and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and domestic."

In the lead-off Corvair chapter, Nader mentions that "In two other cases [brought in California and Florida], jury verdicts were in favor of the company's argument that the drivers were careless. In none of the three suits," Nader continues, "whatever their resolution may be on appeal [there was none], did General Motors reveal the technical data and test results that would [place] before the public the full facts about the Corvair."

However, as quoted in the August 1969 Sports Car Graphic:

This last statement [by Nader regarding GM's reluctance to reveal Corvair specs at trial] was wholly false. In a ten-week trial in San Jose, California, beginning in June 1965 on behalf of Mrs. Doreen Collins and her Corvair accident in 1962, Harney had consumed eight weeks in giving the testimony of his technical experts. And for its part, GM showed 'an extraordinarily technical movie in which a Corvair was subjected to engineering tests on a circular 'skid pad' in Michigan.' Richard Reinhardt sat in on the trial for San Francisco magazine, adding that 'I came realize that much of this technical material, difficult as it was to absorb, was essential to the trial, because the design of the car was at issue and there was no way to discuss this except in engineering terms.'"

Ultimately the jury was most impressed by the attempt of Mrs. Collins, an inexperienced driver, to get her Corvair abruptly back on the road after veering onto the shoulder. This, they decided, was the important part of the case. A Clearwater, Florida, jury also absolved GM of guilt after a six-week trial, argued for plaintiff Vivian Anderson by Harry Philo. They couldn't find the Corvair guilty of causing the rollover that followed a flat tire at 65 mph, which diverted the 1962-model car onto the median strip of a divided highway. Mrs. Anderson's husband died when the driver, James Russell, was unable to keep the car on a straight line.

Corvair defects could have played a part in both these cases; the juries merely decided that driver errors or other factors were more to blame.

Former GM executive John DeLorean asserted in On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors (1979) that Nader's criticisms were valid. Former Ford and Chrysler
Chrysler Group LLC is a multinational automaker headquartered in Auburn Hills, Michigan, USA. Chrysler was first organized as the Chrysler Corporation in 1925....

 President Lee Iacocca
Lee Iacocca
Lido Anthony "Lee" Iacocca is an American businessman known for engineering the Mustang, the unsuccessful Ford Pinto, being fired from Ford Motor Company, and his revival of the Chrysler Corporation in the 1980s...

  said the Corvair was 'unsafe' and a 'terrible' car in his book, Iacocca: An Autobiography
Iacocca: An Autobiography
Iacocca: An Autobiography is Lee Iacocca's best selling autobiography, co-authored with William Novak and originally published in 1984. Most of the book is taken up with reminiscences of Iacocca's career in the car industry, first with the Ford Motor Company, then the Chrysler Corporation...


Thomas Sowell
Thomas Sowell
Thomas Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author. A National Humanities Medal winner, he advocates laissez-faire economics and writes from a libertarian perspective...

 argued in The Vision of the Anointed (1995) that Nader was ignorant and dismissive of the trade-off
A trade-off is a situation that involves losing one quality or aspect of something in return for gaining another quality or aspect...

 between safety and affordability. According to Sowell, Nader also did not pay much attention to the fact that motor vehicle death rates per million passenger miles fell over the years from 17.9 in 1925 to 5.5 in 1965.

Journalist David E. Davis
David E. Davis
David Evan Davis, Jr. was an automotive journalist and magazine publisher widely known as a contributing writer, editor and publisher at Car and Driver magazine and as the founder of Automobile magazine....

, in a 2009 article in Automobile Magazine
Automobile Magazine
Automobile magazine is an automobile magazine in the United States and is owned by Source Interlink. It was founded by a group of former employees of Car and Driver magazine, led by that publications’s former editor, David E. Davis, and originally published by News Corporation...

, criticized Nader for purportedly focusing on the Corvair while ignoring other contemporary vehicles with swing-axle rear suspensions, including cars from Porsche
Porsche Automobil Holding SE, usually shortened to Porsche SE a Societas Europaea or European Public Company, is a German based holding company with investments in the automotive industry....

, Mercedes-Benz
Mercedes-Benz is a German manufacturer of automobiles, buses, coaches, and trucks. Mercedes-Benz is a division of its parent company, Daimler AG...

 and Volkswagen
Volkswagen is a German automobile manufacturer and is the original and biggest-selling marque of the Volkswagen Group, which now also owns the Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, SEAT, and Škoda marques and the truck manufacturer Scania.Volkswagen means "people's car" in German, where it is...

. However, Motor Trend
Motor Trend
Motor Trend is an American automobile magazine. It first appeared in September 1949, issued by Petersen Publishing Company in Los Angeles, and bearing the tag line "The Magazine for a Motoring World". Petersen Publishing was sold to British publisher EMAP in 1998, who sold the former Petersen...

magazine has noted handling problems with the 50's era Mercedes 300SL Gullwing.

Government response

The book has continuing relevance: it addressed what Nader perceived as the political
Politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments, but also applies to institutions, fields, and special interest groups such as the...

 meddling of the car industry to oppose new safety features, which parallels the debates in the 1990s over the mandatory fitting of air bags in the United States, and industry efforts by the ACEA to delay the introduction of crash tests to assess vehicle-front pedestrian protection in the European Union
European Union
The European Union is an economic and political union of 27 independent member states which are located primarily in Europe. The EU traces its origins from the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community , formed by six countries in 1958...


Further reading

  • Unsafe at Any Speed The Designed-In Dangers of The American Automobile (1965 ) Grossman Publishers, New York LC # 65-16856
  • Interview With Dr. Jorg Beckmann of the ETSC. "Safety experts and the motor car lobby meet head on in Brussels." TEC, Traffic Engineering and Control, Vol 44 N°7 July/August 2003 Hemming Group ISSN 0041 0683
  • Still Unsafe at Any Speed Auto Defects That Cause Wrongful Deaths and Catastrophic Injuries (2009) Equalizer Books, Newport Beach ISBN: 978-1-61584-575-052999

External links

  • http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2006/11/peltzman_on_reg.htmlPodcast discussing the unintended consequence
    Unintended consequence
    In the social sciences, unintended consequences are outcomes that are not the outcomes intended by a purposeful action. The concept has long existed but was named and popularised in the 20th century by American sociologist Robert K. Merton...

    s of the safety regulations] Sam Peltzman on EconTalk
    EconTalk is a weekly podcast hosted by professor Russell Roberts at George Mason University. Roberts interviews guests—often professional economists—on topics in economics....

     discusses the Peltzman Effect
    Peltzman Effect
    The Peltzman effect is the hypothesized tendency of people to react to a safety regulation by increasing other risky behavior, offsetting some or all of the benefit of the regulation...

    , the roots of which lay in car safety regulation.
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