On this day in 1966, Ralph Nader, a young lawyer and the author of the groundbreaking book “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile,” testifies before Congress for the first time about unsafe practices in the auto industry.
By the mid-1960s, U.S. automakers were still largely unregulated. Nader’s book, which was published in November 1965, accused car companies of designing vehicles with an emphasis on style and power at the expense of consumer safety. One chapter of “Unsafe at Any Speed” focused on handling problems with the Chevrolet Corvair, a car produced by auto giant General Motors (GM). Shortly after Nader’s congressional testimony, the news media reported that Nader had been followed by detectives. It was later determined that starting in early February 1966, GM 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 make “Unsafe at Any Speed” a best-seller and turn Ralph Nader a household name.
Nader was born on February 27, 1934, in Winsted, Connecticut. He graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School, then served in the U.S. Army for six months before becoming a lawyer. The publication of “Unsafe at Any Speed” and Nader’s public advocacy of auto-safety issues, helped lead to the passage of the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. This legislation sought to reduce the rising number of injuries and deaths from road accidents by establishing federal safety standards for every American-made vehicle, including safety belts for all passengers. The Corvair, which suffered from slumping sales due in part to the negative publicity from Nader’s book as well as to consumer lawsuits (the car’s suspension system was blamed for rollovers), was discontinued by GM in 1969.
In addition to auto safety, Nader went on to advocate on behalf of a long list of other consumer causes, including food and drug safety. He also made 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.