It is a rare privilege as a writer to claim that your work has saved a life, and an impressive honor to be able legitimately to claim you saved millions.¹ This is the position of Ralph Nader, who, in taking on the automotive industry in the 1965 book, Unsafe At Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile, contributed in a pioneering way to the shift in public opinion towards regulating the car industry in the interests of safety.
Before this successful campaign, car safety was generally considered the individual responsibility of the driver.² In 1964, there were 47,700 deaths and more than 4 million injuries among a population of 190 million.³ (By way of comparison, in 2018, there were around 40,000 deaths, for a population of 327 million). Automobile crashes were the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, and were responsible for a third of the hospitalizations for injuries.⁴
With clean and compelling prose, Nader showed how large numbers of these deaths were preventable. His book’s opening line set the tone: “For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people.” Customers were routinely being held legally and politically responsible for causing accidents that they were often powerless to prevent. Rather than focusing on the driver, it was the industry that needed to change.
With clean and compelling prose, Nader showed how large numbers of these deaths were preventable. His book’s opening line set the tone: “For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people.”
Unsafe at Any Speed exposed how cars were subject to few safety standards and almost no money was spent on improving safety. About $166 was spent on research for every traffic fatality, only a quarter of which was contributed by industry.⁵ By way of comparison, $53,000 was spent on safety work arising from each death in the aviation industry.⁶ As a result, “[n]early one half of the automobiles on the road today will eventually be involved in an injury-producing accident,” Nader wrote.⁷ He pointed out that the automobile industry spent only 23 cents per car on safety research, compared to $700 per car on the annual model change, which was mostly devoted to styling. ‘A great problem of contemporary life,’ Nader observed, ‘is how to control the power of economic interests which ignore the harmful effects of their applied science and technology.’⁸
The automotive industry was not some guileless bystander to this public health crisis. It lobbied hard to attribute deaths to the individual responsibility of drivers. Safety was portrayed as irrelevant to the consumer mindset, and hence incompatible with selling cars. “‘Self-styled experts with radical and ill-conceived proposals,’” warned John F. Gordon in 1961, “‘[think] the only practical route to greater safety [is] federal regulation of vehicle design.’” Gordon was the president of General Motors, and he was speaking to the National Safety Congress. His skepticism was undisguised: “‘The suggestion that we abandon hope of teaching drivers to avoid traffic accidents an concentrate on designing cars that will make collisions harmless is a perplexing combination of defeatism and wishful thinking.’”⁹ His address was met with enthusiastic applause.
The industry faced minimal push back from the government. In the 1960s, the national regulator was understaffed and underfunded with key positions in agencies unfulfilled.¹⁰ This was not unintentional. The automotive industry was one of the biggest contributors to the post-war boom.¹¹ It was easier to adopt the line that road safety was a matter for drivers to fix, rather than tackle a valuable industry head-on. While it was true that there were multiple lawsuits in progress against automotive manufacturers, there were no meaningful federal standards that might dispense with the need for such individualized legal action.
Nader pointed out that because the political climate attributed this epidemic to the behavior of the driver, it invariably affected how accidents were investigated, recorded and responded to. A whole service industry had developed around managing accidents, involving lawyers, doctors, and insurers.
For these reasons, National Academy of Sciences described the dangers of car travel in 1966 as “a neglected epidemic of modern society” and “the nation’s most important environmental health problem.”¹² Yet getting anyone to do anything about it was a struggle. Nader pointed out that because the political climate attributed this epidemic to the behavior of the driver, it invariably affected how accidents were investigated, recorded and responded to. A whole service industry had developed around managing accidents, involving lawyers, doctors, and insurers. With some notable exceptions, very few of these groups of people had dedicated themselves to changing the underlying circumstances that gave rise to their work. “Doctors, lawyers, engineers and other specialists have failed in their primary professional ethic: to dedicate themselves to the prevention of accident injuries,” he wrote.¹³ The General Motors plant, Nader pointed out, aimed to produce a vehicle without a single accident on the factory floor. And yet the number of deaths caused by the cars once they left the plant fell outside this paradigm.¹⁴ “The roots of the unsafe vehicle problem are so entrenched,” Nader concluded, “that the situation can be improved only by the forging of new instruments of citizen action.”¹⁵ Consumers had rights, and they needed to be advocated for.
Consumers are a group of people who possess certain kinds of powers in a modern market economy. We are often told that markets are defined by them and guided by the desire to service them. Yet despite the conventional wisdom that they are always right, the market often fails to deliver on consumer demands. Through obfuscation and patronizing assumptions about consumer preferences, the automotive industry avoided the obligation to take safety seriously. They profited by doing so, at the expense of their customers.
And yet, they were not immune to the power of a consumer advocacy campaign. Nader was a passionate and articulate advocate with a simple argument: car safety was a problem by and of design. He showed with detailed evidence how it was within the power of manufacturers to significantly reduce the number of road-related deaths and injuries. The industry preferred to sell dangerous products, and blame their customers when things went wrong. Nader showed how even in a deeply consumerist society, consumers were being taken for a ride.
One of Saul Alinksy rules for radicals was “make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” It is a strategy that has limitations, but it also possesses an undeniable potency. Even capitalists struggle to argue against reforms aimed at making markets work better; even libertarians are reluctant to support an industry that is incentivized to profit from death. Consumer law reflects a set of values that underpin an idealized form of capitalism, which—even for critics of capitalism—remains a powerful rhetorical starting point for those seeking reform.
Unsafe At Any Speed had a profound effect on the public dialogue about a harmful industry, and as a result, it animated policymakers. By the spring of 1966 it was a best-seller. By the fall, less than a year after publication, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. This imposed new vehicle safety standards and created an agency to enforce them. Over time, this has lead to the introduction of new features like mandatory seatbelts, airbags, antilock brakes and electronic stability control.¹⁶ Nader was certainly not the only person who deserves credit for these reforms, but it is hard to think of his equivalent. (General Motors obviously concurred, which is why they hired private investigators to follow him after the book was published. The company subsequently apologized.)¹⁷
Nader was a passionate and articulate advocate with a simple argument: car safety was a problem by and of design. He showed with detailed evidence how it was within the power of manufacturers to significantly reduce the number of road-related deaths and injuries.
The campaign for federal regulation of the automotive industry to improve safety serves as a powerful model with potential to be repurposed against other predatory and exploitative industries. The electronic gambling industry is one example, where manufacturers profit from creating a dynamic of addiction between person and device, while claiming harm is a consequence of a lack of self-restraint. The most obvious, however, is perhaps the tech industry, which until relatively recently, was keen to hold users responsible for giving away their privacy, or indulging in political extremism or degrading public space. Regulation was considered antithetical to this entrepreneurial industry, a powerhouse of economic activity. Thanks to campaigners for digital rights, there is a growing awareness that these are not problems that can be simply blamed on individual users, they are also problems of design that require a collective response.
As the debate about how to best regulate the technology industry heats up, there are valuable lessons we can remember from the 1960s. Industries and regulators that talk about individual responsibility are worthy of our suspicion. The regulation of design is an important and potentially powerful objective.
Of course, regulating complex products like automated decision-making tools, neural networks or deep learning machines is hardly a straightforward task. But it is not impossible to set standards. Quite the opposite, the experience of publicly discussing, designing and implementing public interventions into markets allows us the opportunity to work collectively through complex problems. “A democratic government is far better equipped to resolve competing interests and determine whatever is required [to improve safer transport] than are firms whose all-absorbing aim is higher and higher profits,” wrote Nader in 1965. ¹⁸ His observation was prescient for the automotive industry then and has enduring relevance for other industries today.
Nader was certainly not the only person who deserves credit for these reforms, but it is hard to think of his equivalent. (General Motors obviously concurred, which is why they hired private investigators to follow him after the book was published. The company subsequently apologized.)
If we are to learn from the example set by Unsafe At Any Speed, one area for improvement might concern the organization of workers. For example, for a long time, the prevailing view was the coders and engineers built things, the ethical considerations were above their pay-grade. But this is starting to change. In the tech industry, we are seeing how ethical design considerations can serve as an industrial and political organizing tool, acting as a bulwark against predatory business practices. “Technological professionals are the first, and last, lines of defense against the misuse of technology,” argued Cherri M. Pancake, president of the world’s largest organization of computer scientists and engineers, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). In 2018, the organization published an updated code of ethics, which requires developers to identify possible harmful side effects or the potential for misuse of their work, consider the needs of a diverse set of users, and take special care to avoid the disenfranchisement of groups of people. Among the feedback received about the code by the ACM was this comment from a young programmer: ‘Now I know what to tell my boss if he asks me to do something like that again.’ Resolving the ethical considerations involved in design can be a complicated task, but it is not impossible. Creating space for those working with technology to work through these dilemmas will be a vital source of protection for consumers against companies who might otherwise have few incentives to take such concerns seriously.
In recent times, Nader has since opened the Museum of American Tort Law, a shrine to the importance of plaintiffs in bringing about social change. The museum is stacked with exhibits about dangerous products, from toxic toys, to boiling hot takeaway coffees, to dodgily designed cars. Tort cases often attract vitriol and hyperbole in how they are covered in the mainstream media, with particular focus given to payouts deemed excessive. Nader’s museum serves as a counterpoint—giving significant weight to ruthless industries that have given rise to large awards of damages by courts. It behooves us to remember that ordinary people pay the price when companies are negligent,—in the form of pain, trauma and, sometimes, with their lives. Changing the law requires bravery and commitment from individuals, pitched against powerful corporations. In setting precedents, plaintiffs protect countless consumers who might otherwise have suffered their fate.
“The regulation of the automobile must go through three stages,” wrote Nader. “The stage of public awareness and demand for action, the stage of legislation, and the stage of continuing administration.”¹⁹ We ought to apply a similar approach to predatory industries today, by scrutinizing their practices, rallying around demands for change and putting in place processes for ongoing accountability. Such regulatory processes are hardly perfect; they can be cumbersome, subject to industry capture and misdirection. But without food safety monitoring, or the regulatory approval of medical products, or safety standards in the automotive industry, or any number of countless other centralized regulatory processes, our society would be a much more dangerous place. We owe a debt of gratitude for the contribution of advocates like Nader in fighting to avoid such a dystopia.