Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile by Ralph Nader, published in 1965, is a book detailing resistance by car manufacturers to the introduction of safety features, like seat belts, and their general reluctance to spend money on improving safety. It was a pioneering work of consumer advocacy, openly polemical but containing substantial references and material from industry insiders. It made Nader a household name and the style is often imitated.


Unsafe at Any Speed is often characterized as the book "about the Corvair", though only one of the book's eight chapters covers the Corvair. The theme of tire pressures chosen for comfort rather than safety is recurrent, and the main theme throughout is the way in which the motor industry evaded even well-founded and technically informed criticism.

Organization and content[]

Each of the book's chapters covered a different aspect of automotive safety:

"The Sporty Corvair"[]

The subject for which the book is probably most widely known is covered in the first chapter, the rear-engined Chevrolet Corvair. The chapter titled "The Sporty Corvair-The One-Car Accident", pertained to the first 1960–1963 models that had a suspension design which was prone to "tuck under" in certain circumstances. In substitution for the cost-cutting lack of a front stabilizer bar (anti-roll bar), Corvairs required tire pressures which were outside of the tire manufacturer's recommended tolerances; an unusually high front:rear differential (15psi front, 26psi rear, when cold; 18 psi and 30psi hot). The tire pressures were more critical than for most contemporaneous designs, but this was not made explicitly clear to Chevrolet salespeople and Corvair owners. According to the standards laid down by the Tire and Rim Association, the relevant industry body, the pressures also rendered the front tires overloaded when there were two or more passengers on board. An unadvertised at-cost option (#696) included upgraded springs and dampers, front anti-roll bars and rear axle rebound straps to prevent tuck-under. Aftermarket kits were also available, such as the EMPI Camber Compensator, for the knowledgeable owner. The suspension was modified for the 1964 model year with a additions of a standard front anti-roll bar and a transverse mounted rear spring. In 1965, the totally redesigned, four-link, fully independent rear suspension maintained a constant camber angle at the wheels. Corvairs from 1965 on did not suffer the characteristic tuck-under crashes.

In more recent years, the perceived problems with the Corvair have been recognized as due to driver unfamiliarity with the handling characteristics of the Corvair's design.[1]

George Caramagna, the Chevrolet supension mechanic, who Nader learned had fought management for costing out the vital anti-sway bar that they were forced to install in later models was vital to this issue. The missing bar caused many crashes and it was Caramagna who precipitated the whole controversy by staying his ground on the issue.

"Disaster deferred"[]

Chapter two levies criticism on auto design such as instrument panels and dashboards that were often brightly finished with chrome and glossy enamels which reflected sunlight or the light of oncoming motor vehicles into the driver's eyes. This problem, according to Nader, was well known by persons in the industry, but little was done to correct it. Usually, the reason for not taking actions was that it would take away from the styling or appearance of the cars.

Apart from some of the examples given in the Corvair chapter, Nader offers much about the shift quadrants on early automatic transmission-equipped cars. Several examples are given of persons accidentally being run over, or cars that turned into runaways because the driver operating the vehicle at the time of the accident was not familiar with its shift pattern and would shift into reverse when intending to shift to park. Nader makes an appeal to the auto industry to standardize these shift patterns between makes and models as a safety issue.

Early automatic transmissions, including GM's Hydra-Matic, Packard's Ultramatic, and Borg Warner's automatic used by a number of independent manufacturers (Rambler, Studebaker) used a pattern of "P N D L R" which put Reverse at the bottom of the quadrant, next to Low. Drivers still used to moving the shift lever all the way down for "first gear" on a manual shift would accidentally select "R" and would unexpectedly move the car backwards. In addition, other manufacturers such as Chrysler, used a push-button selector, which was yet another diverse method of selecting gear ranges. Ford was the first to use the "P R N D L" pattern which separated Reverse from forward ranges by Neutral. Eventually this pattern became the standard for all automatic shift cars.

Chevrolet's Powerglide, at least as seen on the Corvair, used a "R N D L" pattern which separated the Reverse from the Drive gears by neutral in the ideal way, but which had no "P" selection, relying instead on a separate hand brake when parking.

Chapter two also exposes problems in workmanship and the failure of companies to honor warranties.

"The second collision"[]

Chapter three documents the history of crash science focusing on the effect on the body as it collides with the car as the car hits another object (the second collision). Nader illustrates that much knowledge was available to designers by the early 1960s but it was largely ignored within the American automotive industry. There are in-depth discussions about the steering assembly, instrument panel, windshield, passenger restraint, and the passenger compartment.

"The power to pollute"[]

Chapter four documents the automobile's impact on air pollution and its contribution to smog, with a particular focus on Los Angeles.

"The engineers"[]

The fifth chapter is about Detroit automotive engineers' general unwillingness to focus on road safety improvements for fear of alienating the buyer or making cars too expensive. Nader counters by pointing out that at the time, annual (and unnecessary) styling changes added on average about $700 to the consumer cost of a new car. This compared to an average expenditure in safety by the automotive companies of about twenty-three cents per car.[2]

"The stylists"[]

Chapter six explores the excessive ornamentation that appeared on cars particularly in the late 1950s and the dominance of car design over good engineering. Of the 1950s designs, Nader notes, "bumpers shaped like sled runners and sloping grill work above the bumpers, which give the effect of 'leaning into the wind' increase ... the car's potential for exerting down-and-under pressures on the pedestrian."[3] See current practice at Pedestrian safety through vehicle design.

"The traffic safety establishment"[]

Subtitled "Damn the driver and spare the car," chapter seven discusses the way the blame for accidents and fatalities was placed on the driver. The book claims that the road safety mantra called the "Three E's" ("Engineering, Enforcement and Education") was created by the industry in the 1920s to distract attention from the real problems of vehicle safety, such as the fact that some were sold with tires that could not bear the weight of a fully-loaded vehicle. To the industry, he said, "Enforcement" and "Education" meant the driver, while "Engineering" was all about the road. As late as 1965, he noted, 320 million federal dollars were allocated to highway beautification, while just $500,000 was dedicated to highway safety.[4]

"The coming struggle for safety"[]

The concluding chapter suggests that the automotive industry would be forced to pay greater attention to safety by government in the face of mounting evidence about preventable death and injury.

Industry response[]

GM responded to Nader's criticism of the Corvair by both trying to destroy Nader's image and silence him. It "(1) conducted a series of interviews with acquaintances of the plaintiff, "questioning them about, and casting aspersions upon [his] political, social, racial and religious views; his integrity; his sexual proclivities and inclinations; and his personal habits"; (2) kept him under surveillance in public places for an unreasonable length of time; (3) caused him to be accosted by girls for the purpose of entrapping him into illicit relationships (4) made threatening, harassing and obnoxious telephone calls to him; (5) tapped his telephone and eavesdropped, by means of mechanical and electronic equipment, on his private conversations with others; and (6) conducted a "continuing" and harassing investigation of him."[5]

On March 22, 1966, GM President James Roche was forced to appear before a United States Senate subcommittee, and to apologize to Nader for the company's campaign of harassment and intimidation. Nader later successfully sued GM for excessive invasion of privacy.[5] It was the money from this case that allowed him to lobby for consumer rights, leading to the creation the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency‎ and the Clean Air Act, among other things.

Other criticism[]

The American motoring journalist David E. Davis, in an article in Automobile Magazine, drew attention to the fact that although Nader claimed that the use of a swing-axle rear suspension was dangerous, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen all used similar swing-axle concepts during that era.[6] The handling of the 1950s' Mercedes 300SL Gullwing has also been noted to be tricky by modern commentators.[7]

According to an account attributed to U.S. author Bob Helt,[8] the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) ran a series of comparative tests, in 1971, studying the handling of the 1963 Corvair against four contemporary cars, a Ford Falcon, Plymouth Valiant, Volkswagen Beetle, Renault Dauphine and also a later 1967 Corvair (with a revised suspension design) was included for comparison. The account went on to describe some of the test details, which included a review of national accident data, and a review of GM internal files and documents, and quoted parts of the original NHTSA report.[9] The result of this test, according to Helt, was, "The 1960-63 Corvair compares favorably with contemporary vehicles used in the tests...the handling and stability performance of the 1960-63 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover, and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and domestic."

Government response[]


The book still has some relevance today: it addressed what Nader perceived as the political meddling of the car industry to oppose new safety features, and parallels the debates in the 1990s over the mandatory fitting of air bags in the United States, and industry efforts by the ACEA to delay the introduction of crash tests to assess vehicle front pedestrian protection in the European Union.[10]

"The Peltzman Effect"[]

The impact of the safety regulations that were spawned because of the book became the basis of a paper by economist Sam Peltzman. Peltzman's conclusions that the regulations actually caused additional deaths became known as the Peltzman Effect. Peltzman argued that because regulation made cars safer, getting into an accident became less risky, providing a rationale for some drivers to drive more aggressively, leading to a higher incidence of accidents and thus an overall rise in risk of accident for all drivers - known as risk compensation or moral hazard.

Peltzman also argued that car safety was already improving, though at a slow rate, since the invention of the car. These improvements tended to be minor but had a huge impact in improving safety (such as a rearview mirror mounted on the outside of the car and automatically canceling turn signals).

Further reading[]

  • Unsafe at Any Speed The Designed-In Dangers of The American Automobile (1965 ) Grossman Publishers, New York LC # 65-16856
  • Interview With Dr. Jorg Beckmann of the ETSC. "Safety experts and the motor car lobby meet head on in Brussels." TEC, Traffic Engineering and Control, Vol 44 N°7 July/August 2003 Hemming Group ISSN 0041 0683


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