Auto Safety Regulations Saved 3.5 Million Lives Since 1965 Publication of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed

Auto safety regulations have saved 3.5 million lives over the past 50 years.

That’s according to an analysis by the Center for Auto Safety and The Nation magazine released this morning.

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader

The estimate found that auto safety-related measures — the 1966 federal laws, federal agency and general measures they created — have averted 3.5 million auto deaths over the past 50 years.

The data, compiled by the Center’s executive director Clarence Ditlow and timed to the 50th anniversary of the publication of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe At Any Speed, is reported in “How Ralph Nader Changed America,” a Nation profile of the crusading consumer advocate by Mark Green.

It will be published in the December 21/28, 2015 edition of the magazine and be accompanied by an interview between Nader and national affairs correspondent John Nichols.

“Three and a half million represents the difference between the number of deaths that there would have been if the death rate had stayed at 5.50 per hundred million VMT (vehicle miles traveled) in 1966 versus what it went down to in each subsequent year, falling to 1.07 by 2014,”* Ditlow said. “Deaths have been saved by traffic laws (seat belt use, helmet and drunk driving laws), safer roads, vehicle safety standards and vehicle safety improvements spurred by consumer demand for more safety after Unsafe at Any Speed.”

Green, who worked for Nader in Washington, DC, from 1970-1980 and later became the first elected Public Advocate of New York City, said that “these 3.5 million American lives saved over five decades by auto regulation reducing auto-related death rates by 80 percent — as many saved per year as were killed in the entire Vietnam War — is a persuasive numerical rebuttal to all who glibly denounce ‘big government.’”

“Would they maintain their disdain if shown to among the 3.5 million?” Green asked. “The issue is not the size of government but how a smart democracy can successfully save millions of lives.””

The Nation published Nader’s first article on auto safety, “The Safe Car You Can’t Buy,” on April 11, 1959, when he was just one year out of Harvard Law School.

This article would provide the basis for Unsafe at Any Speed, which in turn helped launch the consumer-rights movement.

Until the fall of 1966, there was no federal regulatory law or agency protecting them from death and injury on the nation’s highways.

In that year, 50,894 people were killed and 1.9 million injured.

Prior to 1966, over 1.6 million people had been killed in motor vehicle accidents in the United States before the Congress passed two landmark pieces of legislation that year — the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and its companion bill, the Highway Safety Act.

If the 1966 fatality rate of 5.50 deaths per hundred million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) had continued, 167,956 people would have been killed in vehicle crashes in 2014. Instead, the death rate was 1.07 — a decline of 80 percent over 50 years—with 32,675 killed.

In 1965, the publication of Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed exposed the deplorable safety records of auto companies.

The book — and subsequent investigation of the author by General Motors — led to Congressional hearings overseen by Senators Warren Magnuson and Abraham Ribicoff.

At the Senate hearing, GM President James Roche apologized to Nader for his company’s probes.

Within a few months, the Senate and House unanimously passed the Vehicle Safety and Highway Safety Acts, which were signed by President Lyndon Johnson on September 16.

“In this century, more than one and a half million of our fellow citizens have died on our streets and highways; nearly three times as many Americans as we have lost in all our wars,” Johnson said. “I’m proud at this moment to sign these bills—which promise, in the years to come, to cure the highway disease: to end the years of horror and give us years of hope.”

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