• History

This Book Has Kept American Drivers Safe for 50 Years

3 minute read

When a young lawyer named Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965, the reception was not all warm.

The book set out to show how automakers had valued style over safety—particularly in cars like the Chevrolet Corvair—thereby putting consumers at risk. A TIME essay the following year portrayed Nader as a polemicist who was trying to paint auto accidents as solely the fault of the machines, with no account for driver error, and asserted that the book was “an arresting, though one-sided, lawyer’s brief that accuses Detroit of just about everything except starting the Vietnamese war.”

But that was nothing compared to what General Motors did. The occasion for that essay was the company president’s appearance in front of a Senate subcommitee to answer to the accusation that G.M. had secretly hired a private eye, Vincent Gillen, to snoop on Nader. “Gillen sent his agents a frank letter about what they were supposed to try to accomplish,” TIME reported. “‘Our job,’ he wrote, ‘is to check Nader’s life and current activities, to determine what makes him tick, such as his real interest in safety, his supporters if any, his politics, his marital status, his friends, his women, boys, etc., drinking, dope, jobs, in fact all facets of his life.'”

The agents attempted to find nefarious reasons why the 32-year-old remained unmarried, attempted to find proof that his Lebanese immigrant parents were anti-Semites and even attempted to follow him into the Senate Office Building when he was called to testify about traffic safety. “You can feel pretty proud,” Sen. Abraham Ribicoff told Nader. “They have put you through the mill and they haven’t found a damn thing wrong with you.”

By the end of that year, President Johnson had signed two auto-safety bills into law and established the National Traffic Safety Agency, despite the auto industry’s outspoken desire to regulate itself. The new laws addressed a wide range of problems from safety codes and vehicle inspection to highway design and driver education.

By 1969, Nader was on the cover of TIME, with a story that dubbed him the nation’s “toughest customer”:

As the self-appointed and unpaid guardian of the interests of 204 million U.S. consumers, he has championed dozens of causes, prompted much of U.S. industry to reappraise its responsibilities and, against considerable odds, created a new climate of concern for the consumer among both politicians and businessmen. Nader’s influence is greater now than ever before. That is partly because the consumer, who has suffered the steady ravishes of inflation upon his income, is less willing to tolerate substandard, unsafe or misadvertised goods. It is also because Nader’s ideas have won acceptance in some surprising places. Last week, for example, Henry Ford II went farther than any other automobile executive ever has in acknowledging the industry’s responsibility for polluting the air and asked—indeed, prodded—the Government to help correct the situation. The auto companies must develop, said Ford, “a virtually emission-free” car, and soon. Ford did not mention Ralph Nader, but it was not really necessary. Nader is widely known as a strong critic of the auto industry for, among other things, its pollution of the atmosphere.

Nader, for his part, merely shrugged away the praise. “I should not be given an award,” he said, “for doing what I should be doing.”

Read the full 1969 cover story about Nader, here in the TIME Vault: The Consumer Revolt

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com