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Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile is a landmark nonfiction book by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, first published in 1965. Its central theme charged car manufacturers of resistance to the introduction of safety features (such as seat belts), and their general reluctance to spend money on improving safety. This pioneering work contains substantial references and material from industry insiders. It was a best seller in non-fiction in 1966.

Theme

Unsafe at Any Speed is primarily known for its critique of the Chevrolet Corvair, although only one of the book's eight chapters covers the Corvair. It also deals with the use of tires and tire pressure being based on comfort rather than on safety, and the automobile industry disregarding technically-based criticism.[2] A 1972 N.H.T.S.A. report disputed his allegations about abnormal handling in sharp turns and suggested the Corvair's rollover rate was comparable to similar cars. [3]

Organization and content

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

"The Sporty Corvair"

1961-63 Corvair swing-axle rear suspension

The subject for which the book is probably most widely known, the rear-engined Chevrolet Corvair, is covered in Chapter 1—"The Sporty Corvair-The One-Car Accident". This relates to the first models (1960–1964) that had a swing-axle suspension design which was prone to "tuck under" in certain circumstances. To make up for the cost-cutting lack of a front stabilizer bar (anti-roll bar), Corvairs required tire pressures which were outside of the tire manufacturers' recommended tolerances. The Corvair relied on an unusually high front to rear pressure differential (15psi front, 26psi rear, when cold; 18 psi and 30psi hot), and if one inflated the tires equally, as was standard practice for all other cars at the time, the result was a dangerous oversteer.[4] Despite proper tire pressures being more critical than for contemporaneous designs, Chevrolet salespeople and Corvair owners were not properly advised of the requirement and risk. According to the standards of the Tire and Rim Association, these recommended pressures caused the front tires to be overloaded, when there were two or more passengers in the car.

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 1964 models, with inclusion 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. A redesign for the 1965 model eliminated the tuck-under crash tendency. George Caramagna, a mechanic working on the suspension system, suggested installing the anti-sway bar, but was overruled by management.

A 1972 safety commission report conducted by Texas A&M University concluded that the 1960–1963 Corvair possessed no greater potential for loss of control than its contempor

Unsafe at Any Speed is primarily known for its critique of the Chevrolet Corvair, although only one of the book's eight chapters covers the Corvair. It also deals with the use of tires and tire pressure being based on comfort rather than on safety, and the automobile industry disregarding technically-based criticism.[2] A 1972 N.H.T.S.A. report disputed his allegations about abnormal handling in sharp turns and suggested the Corvair's rollover rate was comparable to similar cars. [3]

Organization and content

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

"The Sporty Corvair"

1961-63 Corvair swing-axle rear suspension

The subject for which the book is probably most widely known, the rear-engined Chevrolet Corvair, is covered in Chapter 1—"The Sporty Corvair-The One-Car Accident". This relates to the first models (1960–1964) that had a swing-axle suspension design which was prone to "tuck under" in certain circumstances. To make up for the cost-cutting lack of a front stabilizer bar (anti-roll bar), Corvairs required tire pressures which were outside of the tire manufacturers' recommended tolerances. The Corvair relied on an unusually high front to rear pressure differential (15psi front, 26psi rear, when cold; 18 psi and 30psi hot), and if one inflated the tires equally, as was standard practice for all other cars at the time, the result was a dangerous oversteer.[4] Despite proper tire pressures being more critical than for contemporaneous designs, Chevrolet salespeople and Corvair owners were not properly advised of the requirement and risk. According to the standards of the Tire and Rim Association, these recommended pressures caused the front tires to be overloaded, when there were two or more passengers in the car.

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 1964 models, with inclusion of a standard front anti-roll bar and a transverse-mounted rear spring. In 1965, the totally redesigned four-link, fully "The Sporty Corvair"

Chapter 4 documents the automobile's impact on air pollution and its contribution to smog, with a particular focus on Los Angeles.

"The engineers"

Chapter 5 is about

Chapter 5 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 (equivalent to $5,700 in 2019). This compared to an average expenditure in safety by the automotive companies of about twenty-three cents per car (equivalent to $1.87 in 2019).[7]:p187

[7]:p227 See current practice at Pedestrian safety through vehicle design.

"The traffic safety establishment"

Subtitled "Damn the driver and spare the car," Chapter 7 discusses the way the blame for vehicular crashes and harm was placed on the driver. The book says 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 that 320 million federal dollars were allocated to highway beautification, while just $500,000 was dedicated to highway safety.[7]:p294

Chapter 7 discusses the way the blame for vehicular crashes and harm was placed on the driver. The book says 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 that 320 million federal dollars were allocated to highway beautification, while just $500,000 was dedicated to highway safety.[7]:p294

"The coming struggle for safety"

C

Chapter 8, the concluding chapter, suggests that the automotive industry should be forced by government to pay greater attention to safety in the face of mounting evidence about preventable death and injury.

Reception

Unsafe at Any Speed was a bestseller in nonfiction from April through July 1966.[8] It also prompted the passage of seat-belt laws in 49 states (all but New Hampshire) and a number of other road-safety initiatives.[9]

Government response