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Tuesday August 18, 2015

Review of Car Safety Wars: One Hundred Years of Technology, Politics and Death

I first met Mike Lemov 42 years ago when I arrived in Washington, D.C. to serve as a special assistant to David Pittle, one of the original five CPSC Commissioners. Mike was then Chief Counsel to a subcommittee on the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, and one of the legislative architects of the Consumer Product Safety Act.


Mike immediately struck me as a bright and intense advocate for consumer safety with a strong “cut-to-the-chase” manner. Perhaps this led me to expect that his history of the auto safety movement, Car Safety Wars: One Hundred Years of Technology, Politics and Death (Farleigh Dickinson University Press 2015), might simply be a broadside against the automobile industry for its unending opposition – year after year – to almost all auto safety initiatives. Not so. This meticulously researched book offers a far more nuanced and thoughtful historical perspective than that. He certainly documents the industry’s ferocious challenges to every proposed safety re-design of cars – from seat belts to padded dashboards to air bags. But, he also points out that for too many years the government was uninterested and car buyers were seemingly unconcerned about auto safety.


What makes Car Safety Wars such a delightful read is Mike’s compelling story-telling. Rather than simply marching through a dry litany of statistics, he captures decade-by-decade the auto safety zeitgeist through a gripping narrative. In the process, we see a parade of auto safety heroes, including Ralph Nader, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Michael Pertschuk, Warren Magnuson, Abe Ribicoff, Morton Mintz, Bill Haddon, Joan Claybrook, Clarence Ditlow, and Elizabeth Dole.


To me, one of the most fascinating was an obscure congressman from Alabama named Ken Roberts. One of five congressmen wounded in the US Capitol in 1954 by a group of Puerto Rican nationalists, Roberts spent months convalescing. As he recuperated, he reflected on a car crash he had suffered on his honeymoon in which the carefully wrapped glass gifts in his car trunk had survived the collision without breaking. In his words, “While I was in the hospital, I began to think about what I could do to save some lives, since my own had been so miraculously spared. I thought about my experience with the glass stuff in that car collision and realized that no real study had ever been made of this thing, about the possibility of making automobiles safer.” This experience started Roberts on a lifetime crusade to promote auto safety, eventually bringing into the fold Senator Warren Magnuson and other powerful congressional leaders who overcame fierce industry opposition to enact the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966.1.


Although it is difficult in a short review to capture the many historical insights that Lemov offers in his book, I see several broad themes which the reader will find worthy of serious consideration.


First, Lemov makes a compelling case for progressive government in the ongoing campaign to promote auto safety. Even a casual perusal of the statistics in his book makes his point. Consider that in 1966, when Congress began an active role in promoting auto safety by passing the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, the U.S. population stood at 196 million. At that time, roughly 51,000 Americans died in automobile crashes. Fast forward to 2012, when the population had grown to 314 million – almost a 25 percent increase – yet the number of fatalities had fallen to 33,500. This represents a drop from 5.5 to 1.13 deaths for each 100 million miles driven, or roughly an 80 percent decline. As Lemov notes, had the government not been energetic in its pursuit of greater safety through automobile re-design, industry’s implacable opposition to such measures undoubtedly would have doomed any meaningful safety initiatives.


Second, and related to the first point, Lemov catalogues and strongly criticizes the industry’s insistence that the only worthwhile safety activities for automobiles are educating careless and drunken drivers. In other words, the only true safety concern should be the “nut behind the wheel.” On this point, Lemov quotes Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a staff member at the Labor Department in 1959, as capturing the fundamental flaw in this reasoning when he criticized the National Safety Council’s implicit endorsement of this argument:

By emphasizing the individual’s responsibility in automobile accidents, the Safety Council shifts public attention from factors such as automobile design which we can reasonably hope to control, to factors such as the temperament and behavior of eighty million drivers, which are not susceptible to any form of consistent, overall control.2

Or, to put it another way, it is usually easier and more cost-effective to re-design a product than it is to re-design consumers – a point enshrined in most modern product safety laws. Virtually all such laws direct health and safety agencies to act on behalf of consumers even where consumer misuse plays a role in their injuries or death.


Finally, although Lemov celebrates the tremendous strides in auto safety in the U.S., his careful and comprehensive history shows how fragile some of these achievements are. For example, had General Motors not been so clumsy in spying on Ralph Nader, had Nader not been so righteously single-minded, had a few members of Congress not been so dogged in exposing the story, and had the media not been so insistent on documenting GM’s wrongdoing, one finds it hard to believe that auto safety would be where it is today. History seems inevitable only from hindsight, and Lemov has done a superb job in reminding us of this fact.


I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in how public policy evolves over time. As a member of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, I note how NHTSA’s history sometimes looks and feels similar to CPSC’s. Both have received boosts in authority and funding in response to public safety scandals – NHTSA from the Ford-Firestone case and CPSC from the lead in imported toys recalls. Both have also suffered when deregulatory fever hits Washington, as it does from time to time.


Reading the history of auto safety has given me a treasure trove of insight into my own agency. For that, I am extremely grateful to Mike and his fascinating book.



1 I note in passing that “Seatbelt Roberts,” as he was derisively known, also introduced the Refrigerator Safety Act, currently enforced by CPSC, that mandates easily-opened refrigerator doors to prevent childhood suffocations in abandoned refrigerators – one the most successful pieces of safety legislation ever enacted.


2 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Epidemic on the Highways,” The Reporter, April 30, 1959, 17, cited in Lemov, at 29.