On January 13, 1962, Ernie Kovacs, a comedian who hosted his own television shows during the 1950s and is said to have influenced such TV hosts as Johnny Carson and David Letterman, dies at the age of 42 after crashing his Chevrolet Corvair into a telephone pole in Los Angeles, California, while driving in a rainstorm. Kovacs, who often appeared on camera with his trademark cigar, was found by police with an unlit cigar, leading to speculation that he had been reaching for the cigar and lost control of his vehicle. The Corvair was later made infamous by Ralph Nader’s groundbreaking 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, about unsafe practices in the auto industry.
Ralph Nader, who was born in 1934 and graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School, published “Unsafe at Any Speed” at a time when U.S. automakers were still largely unregulated. His book 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). In February 1966, Nader testified before the U.S. Congress about some of the issues in his book. Shortly after Nader’s congressional testimony, the news media reported that Nader had been followed by detectives. It was later determined that GM had 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’s public advocacy on auto-safety issues helped lead to the passage of the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which 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.
In a bitter coincidence, one of Kovac’s three children was later killed in an auto accident.