Consumer Advocate Back in Auto Safety Watchdog Role

March 28, 2006

More than forty years after “Unsafe at Any Speed” shook up the U.S. auto industry, Ralph Nader is returning to his roots.

The longtime consumer advocate and former presidential candidate contends the auto industry has failed to push forward technology that will make vehicles safer, cleaner and more fuel efficient.

Nader accuses the government of acting as a “consulting firm” for U.S. automakers. And he wants to open an office in Detroit to monitor the industry that helped propel him to fame in the 1960s.

“My indignation level is rising again. The gap between the government’s dereliction and these kinds of efficient, safe, clean technologies has never been greater,” Nader said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “NHTSA’s now a consulting firm for Detroit.”

Nader has refocused his attention on the industry at a time when General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., are downsizing as they deal with growing health care and pension obligations and intense competition from Asian automakers.

Nader has urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to improve a proposed roof crush standard, calling it insufficient. Last August, he urged the government to warn consumers about Ford pickups and sport utility vehicles under investigation for a defect that may have caused engine fires.

And last month, he released a lengthy report describing several missed opportunities to improve fuel efficiency and safety in vehicles. The report by his Center for Study of Responsive Law argued that automakers have suppressed technological advancements by suppliers; insurance providers have failed to offer incentives for safer vehicles; and the government has been reluctant to improve technology in its fleet vehicles.

“There’s a huge backlog of practical technologies for improving the safety of motor vehicles, their fuel efficiency, emission controls, ease of repair that are piling up on the shelf and not being implemented,” he said.

Nader’s critics are numerous, from Democrats who still blame him for Al Gore’s defeat in the 2000 presidential election to industry officials who view Nader and his contemporaries as longtime adversaries who fail to acknowledge the high costs of some of the technologies.

NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson defended the Bush administration’s progress in auto safety, noting that fatality rates have reached an all-time low and seat belt use has reached new heights.

“They certainly suggest an agency that is very, very committed to improving highway safety,” Tyson said.

Tyson said on seat belt use, “it certainly would be helpful, with their voice, if they could address some of the behavioral issues which could have an immediate impact on reducing the number of serious injuries and fatalities that are occurring on the nation’s highways.”

Automakers point to major safety upgrades in recent years driven by competition and the realization that safety sells. Side air bags are available on about 75 percent of new vehicles and will be standard equipment by 2009. Anti-rollover technology such as electronic stability control is available on more than 60 percent of 2006 models.

“Public demand for safety technology is at an all-time high and automakers are responding to that by engineering more safety technology into the vehicles,” said Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Nader’s interest in auto safety stems from his days at Princeton, where he was a “hugely committed hitchhiker – we’re talking tens of thousands of miles.” He saw crashes up close and started asking questions, eventually turning his work in a law school seminar into the research that led to his 1965 book, “Unsafe at Any Speed.”

The book exposed safety problems in the Chevrolet Corvair, leading to congressional hearings and federal safety laws. After the book earned widespread attention, GM was forced to issue an apology for trying to discredit Nader.

Nader has not ruled out a presidential bid in 2008, saying he would decide sometime after next fall’s midterm elections. His reemergence in the auto safety field, meanwhile, has been welcomed by the consumer organizations that he founded years ago.

“There’s too many issues and not enough consumer advocates,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.

Nader acknowledges that today’s vehicles are safer and more fuel efficient. He says automakers wouldn’t likely try to sell an unstable vehicle such as the Corvair in the U.S. because of the potential for product liability lawsuits, bad public relations or more regulations.

But he doesn’t think the auto industry and regulators are doing enough. He plans to push for automotive technology improvements in the coming months, as well as an initiative to create a code of ethics for the Society of Automotive Engineers.

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