50 years on, sometimes still ‘unsafe at any speed’

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Ralph Nader’s ‘Unsafe at any speed’ focused growing concern about auto safety
Ralph Nader’s ‘Unsafe at any speed’ focused growing concern about auto safety
President Lyndon Johnson signing the National Traffic and Motor Safety Act of 1966 [LBJ Library photo #A3129-12 by Yoichi Okamoto]
President Lyndon Johnson signing the National Traffic and Motor Safety Act of 1966 [LBJ Library photo #A3129-12 by Yoichi Okamoto]
Today’s vehicle safety campaigners, from Latin NCAP, still urging auto makers to ‘speak up for safety’
Today’s vehicle safety campaigners, from Latin NCAP, still urging auto makers to ‘speak up for safety’

Fifty years ago today, it could be argued, modern road safety advocacy was born.

The publication of Ralph Nader’s ‘Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile’ on 30th November 1965 sparked political and media interest in system failures in US car design and increased awareness of the more than 40,000 people being killed every year in road crashes in the United States, contributing to a process that led to Senate hearings and, in September 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signing into law the National Traffic & Motor Safety Act, establishing the US Department of Transportation and eventually leading to the setting up, in 1970, of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The automobile singled out in Nader’s book as a particularly egregious example of auto industry failings was the Chevrolet Corvair, an innovative vehicle with a rear-mounted engine and independent four wheel suspension which had experienced a large number of high profile fatal crashes. Nader claimed that, amongst other failings, design features to prevent over-steer had been omitted in order to save cost. But the point Nader made was also more general – that the car industry, while understanding the dangers, was failing to make safety a priority. In ‘Unsafe at Any Speed’ Nader wrote:

“There are men in the automobile industry who know both the technical capability and appreciate the moral imperatives. But their timidity and conformity to the rigidities of the corporate bureaucracies have prevailed. When and if the automobile is designed to free millions of human beings from unnecessary mutilation, these men, like their counterparts in universities and government who knew of the suppression of safer automobile development yet remained silent year after year, will look back with shame on the time when common candour was considered courage.” 

Fast-forward 50 years, and much has changed. But much, unforgivably, has stayed the same. Recent high profile safety investigations in the US involving General Motors (maker, back in the 1960s of the Corvair) and Takata, as well as the Volkswagen emissions scandal, have demonstrated the need for active and vigilant oversight of the automobile industry in high-income countries, even as overall safety design and features have improved. But it is in middle income, rapidly motorising, economies, that the ‘moral imperatives’ of which Nader spoke are still not guiding vehicle safety design. Given all that car companies now know and are capable of achieving in safety design and technology, and given the scale of awareness about the global epidemic of road traffic injuries and how to prevent them, the failure to provide safe vehicles for customers in emerging markets is a far more cynical and deliberate negligence than that of which 1960s executives were accused. And the modern-day heirs of Ralph Nader’s campaigning legacy are fighting back.

Two weeks ago, in Brasilia, more than 70 governments and 2000 delegates came together for the 2nd Global High Level Conference on Road Safety, hosted by President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil. In advance of the conference, the Latin New Car Assessment Programme (Latin NCAP) published new crash test results for mass-market cars sold in Central and South America. Some excellent results – five star cars like the Honda HR-V – demonstrated the progress that has been made since the independent crash test programme launched five years ago with support from the FIA Foundation. But one result in particular highlighted that ‘suppression of safer automobile development’ within major companies continues, even when the facts of unacceptable safety performance are clear and available to all.

The Chevrolet Aveo is the bestselling car in Mexico, and its basic version is sold without airbags. This basic Aveo scored zero stars in Adult Occupant Protection and two stars in Child Occupant Protection in the Latin NCAP tests. The structure of the car was rated as unstable and it would not be able to withstand further loadings. The driver registered a high risk of life threatening injuries. The same model was tested in 2006 by Euro NCAP under the same conditions but with double frontal airbags. Even with airbags fitted Euro NCAP concluded that: “the compression of the driver’s chest indicated an unacceptably high risk of life-threatening injury”.

In a letter to General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Latin NCAP has pointed out that it is almost a decade since the Aveo’s safety deficiencies were brought to light, yet nothing has been done to prevent the model’s continued sale – without airbags – to Latin American consumers. As road safety campaigner Zoleka Mandela, herself mother of a road traffic victim, pointed out in her opening address to the Brasilia Ministerial, there is simply ‘no excuse’ for any car sold in the world today to fail to meet basic minimum safety standards.

Pressure on car manufacturers is growing. The World Health Organization’s Global Status Report on Road Safety 2015 recommends that all countries should require, at minimum, that all cars sold should meet a set of seven basic UN standards including crashworthiness performance, pedestrian protection and provision of electronic stability control. The ‘Brasilia Declaration’, negotiated and approved by governments, calls on countries to: “Promote the adoption of policies and measures to implement United Nations vehicle safety regulations or equivalent national standards to ensure that all new motor vehicles meet applicable minimum regulations for occupant and other road users protection, with seat belts, air bags and active safety systems such as anti-lock braking system (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC) fitted as standard”.

Requiring these standards would liberate car manufacturers from difficult economic choices which too often over-ride the ‘moral imperative’. Speaking to the New York Times about the impact of ‘Safe at any Speed’ and the regulation that followed, former GM executive Robert A. Lutz said: “It sets ground rules where everybody has to do something and nobody has to worry” about competitive advantage. Such ground rules are currently lacking in some of the biggest vehicle producing and consuming markets – like Latin America and India – where the temptation to use twenty year old engineering platforms rather than update to the latest crashworthiness standards, include essential equipment such as airbags and stability control only as luxury and costly extras, and side-line safety in pursuit of profit margin has proved too much for many car makers to resist. The work of Latin NCAP and other initiatives, like ASEAN NCAP in South East Asia and Global NCAP’s testing of popular cars in India, in raising consumer and media awareness and promoting transparency is stepping in to demand improvements where the ‘ground rules’ don’t yet exist. But government regulation must follow close behind.

Commenting on the latest Latin NCAP results, Ralph Nader said: “There should be no double standard between safety features and vehicles sold in the US and vehicles sold in developing countries by major auto manufacturers. Unless, that is, these manufacturers devalue the safety and lives of motorists in poorer countries.”

Fifty years on, far too many cars are still ‘unsafe at any speed’.