In the April 11, 1959 issue of The Nation, a young attorney named Ralph Nader took auto manufacturers to task for “glacier-like movement” in availing themselves of engineering solutions to minimize the deadly effects of car crashes. “Automobiles are so designed as to be dangerous at any speed,” he warned, testing out the line that evolved into the title of his groundbreaking 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed.
Fifty-five years later, Congress is investigating a new car safety scandal involving corporate malfeasance, regulatory ineptitude, and at least thirteen deaths. For more than a decade, General Motors was aware of an ignition switch defect that caused some cars to shut off, seemingly at random, disabling the power steering, the airbags, and other safety features. Not until February did GM begin to recall the affected models. The company has recalled more than 2.6 million vehicles so far, and is facing a congressional inquiry and a criminal probe. For it’s part, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, one of the most significant legacies of Nader’s campaign for consumer safety, appears to have failed to perform its oversight and enforcement duties, twice declining to investigate reports of the defects.
As GM CEO Mary Barra and NHTSA acting administrator David Friedman prepare to testify before Congress on Wednesday and Thursday, I spoke with Nader about the scandal, regulatory lapses, and the relationship between lawmakers and the auto industry.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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Zoë Carpenter: What do you think the GM scandal says about how far we’ve come to balance corporate power and consumer rights?
Ralph Nader: GM has done a lot of worse things and got away with it over the years. They blocked fuel efficiency standards with Michigan Representative John Dingell and others, they've blocked safety standards from NHTSA. However, this one has all the elements of a criminal cover-up. Criminal negligence at least, if not a pure criminal cover-up. As a result there is great potential for legislative reform to strengthen the antiquated motor vehicle and highways safety laws, bring them up to date, improve the recall authority, enlarge the fines, and increase the budget of NHTSA, which is absurdly low—deliberately low.
That's the problem with all of these regulatory agencies: almost nobody pays attention in the press to the tiny budgets. It's like having a street crime spree in New York City–arsons, burglary, assaults, and there's one hundred police. People would say, "You need more police!" Well, you need more federal cops in the corporate crime beat and that's true for all agencies. The corporate lawyers are very good about going up on Capitol Hill and making sure those budgets do not increase, even though they pay for themselves many times over with fines and penalties.
Is part of the problem the relationship between lawmakers and the auto industry?
Yeah! It's always been that way, and Dingell of course has undermined the Democrats. So you take the Republicans and John Dingell, you can't beat 'em. Dingell will bring in the United Auto Workers on fuel efficiency, for example. You can't beat a combination of GM, UAW, and John Dingell. He blocked the air bag for years. He was on the back of NHTSA all the time!