Death Traps

Unsafe At Any Speed.
by Ralph Nader.
Grossman Publishers. 365 pp. $5.95.

Safety Last.
by Jeffrey O'connell and Arthur Myers.
Random House. 226 pp. $4.95.

Perhaps the most far-reaching consequence of the mass media, and the one of which we have yet to see the end, is their trivialization of all human experience. For Life Magazine, Marat/Sade equals the comic strip Superman (vibrant/volatile). For TV, Vietnam equals Clairol. Courage means an ABC executive resigning in protest against four commercials on Batman—instead of the customary three. Trivialization takes over even in the style of contemporary muckraking, and in the subjects raked over. Sixty years after Upton Sinclair's assault upon Armour, poisonous meat, and exploited packinghouse workers, the New York Times unleashes Craig Claiborne to expose the lukewarm food and sloppy service of elegant restaurants—boldly named, but so ridiculously priced that most readers would never set foot in them even if Mr. Claiborne were to faint with delight at their cuisine.

For some time, trivializers have turned their attention to the automobile, partly because one out of every five retail dollars in this country is spent for automotive products, and partly because the minute differences between body shells of American automobiles are being interpreted, emphasized, advertised, as indicators of status, sexiness, and hip. Some of the trivializers work within the industry, consciously and steadily distracting attention from function; others work within the mass media, glorifying the new brutes of each model season or, even when they ridicule them, distracting attention from their horror, or from the fact that there is any horror other than the consequences of their careless use.

What is the true horror? These two books disclose its dimensions. It must be said at once, however, that the O'Connell-Myers book, while it is the more recently published, contains virtually nothing that cannot be found, more thoroughly and thoughtfully discussed, in the Nader book. Where it does diverge in interpretation, its version of history seems shaky when compared with Nader's. Thus, O'Connell-Myers:

. . . Ford dropped the safety approach like a hot piston when it found that it didn't sell. Ford's sales had dropped disastrously and in August of 1956 no further mention of safety was to be found in Ford's advertising. Whether it was the safety approach that was the albatross, or a combination of factors, is still argued in Detroit, but it's common knowledge in Grosse Pointe that safety doesn't sell.

Whereas, Nader:

Ford terminated its safety campaign in the spring of 1956 after an internal struggle won by those who agreed with the General Motors analysis of the probably unsettling consequences of a vehicle safety campaign. The 1956 Ford finished second to Chevrolet in sales, but its failure to be number one had nothing to do with the Ford safety campaign. Even so, it has since been cited to prove that “safety doesn't sell.”

Though their hearts are in the right place, O'Connell and Myers have organized their chapters badly and titled them vulgarly (“For He Driveth Furiously,” etc.), and written up their material in excited, sports-page vernacular that can, once again, only distract and titillate us. There is really no reason to suffer through their souped-up prose when the Nader volume is available.

To Mr. Nader, then. We have reason to be grateful, for once, to General Motors. By hiring detectives to trail, harass, and spy upon this young attorney and consultant in an effort to find something in his private life that would discredit his devastating analysis of their product, they have had themselves hauled before a Senate committee, forced to apologize publicly, and thus brought Mr. Nader's book to the attention of millions who might otherwise never have heard of it

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We start with two facts. (1) “Today the motor vehicle is the leading cause of death among people between the ages of five and thirty and the fourth leading cause of death in this country.” (2) “At present rates, one of every two Americans will be injured or killed in an automobile accident.”

Now if the automobile is a neutral agent, one susceptible, like such other developments of the human imagination as atomic fission, of use for either good or evil, then these statistics can be interpreted as further evidence of man's inherent stupidity and viciousness; or as validating the “death wish” and “accident proneness”; or even as nature's revenge on the “population explosion.”

But suppose it were to be in-controvertibly demonstrated that the automobile as presently designed is a death trap, and not simply because of the powerful engine under its hood. Suppose it were to be demonstrated that it has been possible for some time to mass-produce an automobile in which the occupants could not only survive, but be relatively unaffected by collisions at speeds of up to forty miles per hour (most accident victims are killed at slower speeds, upon impact within the car in which they are trapped: the “second collision”).

This is what Mr. Nader, by careful research and analysis, demonstrates with harrowing precision. But this was already the achievement of engineers, physicians, scientists, and politicians before him. Among the politicians we should salute former Congressman Kenneth Roberts of Alabama and New York State Senator Edward Speno. Among the scientists, such genuine heroes as “crackpot” Hugh de Haven, physician-physicist Colonel John Paul Stapp, United States Air Force, and Professor James Ryan of the University of Minnesota—all of whom risked their own lives in collision-impact experiments. What Mr. Nader has done—and quite brilliantly—is to bring these together in well-organized and highly readable form. He has also done something quite beyond the grasp of those who write excitedly or ironically about “insolent chariots.” He has reminded us that this takes place in the context of a society in which men who rise to the top by persisting in the production of vehicles known to be dangerously designed, far from being prosecuted, are seen as logical occupants of the office of Secretary of Defense. Men like Charles E. Wilson and Robert McNamara are presumed to have proven their ability to plan policy for the nation by their previous success in identifying rationality with corporate profit based on proliferation of senseless and dangerous gadge-try, and irrationality with the belief that human beings ought to have precedence over quantities.

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The chevrolet Corvair was known by engineers to be an unstable car at the time it was introduced, in 1959. From then until now, it is estimated that perhaps ten thousand lives have been lost in it because of its suspension and handling hazards; and the lawsuits continue. Nader writes, “It took General Motors four years of the model and 1,124,076 Corvairs before they decided to do something for all unsuspecting Corvair buyers by installing standard equipment to help control the car's handling hazards.” It is scarcely an exaggeration to characterize this as “one of the greatest acts of industrial irresponsibility in the present century,” or to observe that it is “a syndrome of a much deeper malaise that radiates beyond corporate borders and into society.”

General Motors, which dominates the automotive industry and in consequence American life, in a way that is almost unimaginable to most of us, is in turn dominated by men who have not wished to make their product safer, but have preferred instead to conceal its horror from public examination by placing the blame elsewhere, on drivers, on drink, on highways, anywhere but on the murder weapon itself. (In the words of anatomist-consultant Dr. Donald Huelke, the few safety engineers function in the auto industry as “almost a fifth column.”)

These men have created a monster not because they are monsters—although they must bear the responsibility for hundreds of thousands of deaths—but because they themselves are both true believers and captives of a system in which the engineer's authority over design has been eliminated. It has been delegated completely to the socially and ethically irresponsible stylist, whose function “has been designated by automobile company top management as the prerequisite for maintaining the annual high volume of automobile sales—no small assignment in an industry that has a volume of at least twenty billion dollars every year.”

“The motor car must be exciting and create a desire and not become mere transportation,” said GM Vice-President William Mitchell, “or we will have just a utility and people will spend their money for other things, such as swimming pools, boats, hi-fi sets, or European vacations.” Mr. Nader observes: “Or, it might have been added, education, clothes, food, medical care, furniture, and housing.”

Along with his warning that the American economy “is being distorted by tendencies strikingly similar to those that operate in one-crop economies” goes Mr. Nader's understanding that the distortion is the result not of a conspiracy (despite the lies, the lobbying, the shadowing, the hiding) but rather of unchecked greed and wretched narrowness of vision. As he says of the traffic safety establishment, which is not merely subsidized, but run by the industry, “This establishment is not a conspiracy; it does not have to be . . . it has been more like a great power with no challengers.”

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Thanks to Mr. Nader's coldly impassioned challenge, one begins to realize that these swollen corporations have stifled creative engineering even while they have encouraged and in fact insisted upon the most appalling mediocrity among their executives. Is it strange that these foolish and cowardly men should have so much blood on their hands? Is it strange that men should regard themselves as useful members of society when they save money for their employer by specifying dangerously inadequate tires on their new automobiles? Or steering wheels which splinter into javelins to thrust through the fragile human breast? It is to Mr. Nader's honor that he is a true subversive, forcing us to reconsider the values shared by corporation and society—and, to a greater or lesser extent, by all of us.

Now, after over a million deaths, the roadways of our daily lives so spattered with blood and viscera that we avert our eyes, sickened, as we pass, it is the turn of the automobile to submit to government safety standards previously imposed in turn upon the steamboat, the locomotive, the airplane. If we are fortunate enough to have men like Ralph Nader vigilantly watchful to ensure that the corporations do not smother and envelop the legislators as they have the executive (the President's Committee for Traffic Safety is nothing more than a creature of General Motors), then we shall have automobiles fit for our children to drive in, not to die in.

Then, too, we shall have the opportunity to explore fully, and thus begin to cope, with what Mr. Nader has been keen enough to outline: the intimacy of the relationship between trivialization (such as the minute differentiations between automotive death traps) and the priorities which our society will assign, on the one hand to the preservation and enrichment of human life, on the other, to its destruction.

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