Timothy Noah

Nader and the Corvair

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A number of readers have expressed surprise at my statement (which I attributed to the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a Harvard professor and subsequently a senator from New York) that Ralph Nader was wrong about the Corvair. I thought the story was well known, but apparently it isn't. In his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader made the Corvair a case study in corporate irresponsibility. I don't know the details but the car had some sort of rollover problem. Many of the same criticisms of the Corvair were made around the same time by the journalist James Ridgeway in this magazine. GM lost the publicity war by putting a private investigator on Nader's tail. Nader found out about it and Morton Mintz and Ridgeway wrote it up in the Washington Post and the New Republic. Nader became a folk hero, GM a corporate villain, and the Corvair the leading example of Detroit's indifference to auto safety.

A few years later, the forerunner agency to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration--whose creation Nader had lobbied for--issued a report on the Corvair. It found that the car was not, in fact, appreciably less safe than a number of other cars on the market, including, ironically, the Volkswagon Beetle, probably the vehicle best-loved by the sort of people who tended to become Nader's Raiders. Nader attacked the NHTSA report, but an independent panel of engineers selected by the National Academy of Sciences subsequently upheld it. The conservative journalist Ralph deToledano later accused Nader of deliberately falsifying his account of the Corvair. Nader sued, the case was settled out of court, and deToledano (now deceased) reportedly lost his life savings. DeToledano will likely be remembered by history (if he's remembered at all) for two things. He re-established the principle that it's deeply unwise to mess with Ralph Nader. And, in ghost-writing the memoirs of W. Mark Felt, he managed never to find out that his collaborator was Deep Throat, Bob Woodward's secret Watergate source.

Conservatives who crow about Nader's being wrong about the Corvair miss the larger point, which is that no automobile on the market in those days was remotely safe by contemporary standards. The Corvair's safety problem was genuinely intolerable, even if there were other similarly unsafe cars on the road too. There was then, and remains today, nothing that most of us are likely to do in our everyday lives more potentially fatal than getting behind the wheel of an automobile. But it's a lot less dangerous today than it was back then. For that we have Ralph Nader to thank. And that, as best I can remember, was Moynihan's point when I attended his lecture on the subject 35 years ago.

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