On this day in 1934, the auto safety advocate and activist Ralph Nader, whose 1965 book “Unsafe at Any Speed” criticized the auto industry for poor safety standards and ultimately led to various reforms, is born in Winsted, Connecticut.
Nader graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School and served in the U.S. Army for six months before becoming a lawyer. In 1965, while working as legislative aid in Washington, D.C., he published “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile,” which examined unsafe practices in the auto industry and charged car makers with emphasizing style and power in their designs at the expense of safety. One chapter of the book examined problems with the Chevrolet Corvair, a car produced by General Motors (GM). After Nader claimed in his book that the Corvair had an unacceptable rollover risk, the auto giant sent investigators to spy on Nader and look into his personal life in an effort to discredit him. Nader sued GM for harassment and invasion of privacy and won a settlement. The publicity surrounding GM’s actions helped turn “Unsafe at Any Speed” into a bestseller and make Ralph Nader a household name. He testified before Congress about car safety, and his efforts aided the passage of the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, a piece of legislation aimed at reducing the rising number of injuries and deaths from road accidents by establishing federal safety standards for every American-made vehicle, including requiring safety belts for all passengers.
GM discontinued the Corvair in 1969 following slumping sales that were due, in part, to the negative publicity from “Unsafe at Any Speed.” Nader’s name became mud to some Corvair fans and according to a 2004 article in The New York Times: “Mr. Nader is still a touchy subject with many [Corvair] owners, whose vanity license plates may read ‘N8R H8R’ or ‘RALPHWHO.’ Other Corvair owners… put Nader campaign bumper stickers on their cars upside down, on the theory that they would be easier to read if indeed the car rolled over.”
Nader went on to become America’s pre-eminent consumer advocate and work on behalf of a range of causes, including food and drug safety. He also embarked on several unsuccessful runs for the U.S. presidency as a third-party candidate. Nader was criticized by some people for siphoning away votes from Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in the close 2000 election, which Gore ultimately lost to Republican George W. Bush.