For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury, and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people.'' So Ralph Nader began his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile, a landmark in the history of U.S. consumer protection.
Nader's book recounts how U.S. automobile manufacturers resisted attempts to improve auto safety in the 1950s and 1960s. Even when makers of other vehicles such as planes, boats, and trains were forced to adhere to safety regulations, automakers were still largely uncontrolled in the area of safety. ''The gap between existing design and attainable safety,'' Nader wrote, ''has widened enormously in the post-war period.''
Nader examined how auto companies lobbied against safety regulation and organized public relations campaigns that asserted over and over again that most injuries were the result of driver error. He argued that the best and most cost effective way to reduce auto injuries is not to try to alter driver behavior--as honorable a goal as that might be--but to require automakers to design cars that better prevent accidents from occurring and better protect passengers if accidents do occur.
In telling his story, Nader cited sobering statistics on traffic injuries and fatalities, including the fact that auto accidents caused the deaths of 47,700 in 1964--''the extinguishment of about one and three-quarter million years of expected lifetimes,'' he noted--and one-third of all hospitalizations for injuries and 25 percent of all cases of partial and complete paralysis due to injury. Borrowing the zeal and spirit of the civil rights reform movement and the faith in technology of the space program, Nader looked at traffic fatalities as a public health issue that can be resolved through public action and technological innovation. Quoting Walt Whitman's epigram ''If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred,'' Nader asserted that he was attempting to protect the ''body rights'' of U.S. citizens.
To protect those rights, Nader used his book to call for a number of different strategies to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries: federal safety standards; a federal facility for auto safety research, design, and testing; increased manufacturer research and development for safety technology; improved consumer information with regard to auto safety; better disclosure of auto manufacturers' safety engineering efforts; and the creation of a department of transportation. It is a mark of Nader's foresight and determination that all of those goals were achieved in the decades following the publishing of Unsafe at Any Speed.