How Many Americans Are Alive Today Thanks to Ralph Nader?


You’re driving at night in a General Motors compact car, a Cobalt or Cruze or Ion, and without warning the brakes, gas pedal and airbag suddenly give out.  You hurtle into a tree and kill yourself.   The police and forensic experts are in the dark about what happened and why.  Your family asks questions, the auto company responds with a formulaic letter.   What, who me?  Sorry, could be any of a thousand unfathomable reasons, probably your husband, son or daughter was drunk and not paying attention.

If your family persists, GM lawyers come after you with threats to bankrupt you with legal costs.  If you dare to hire an aggressive lawyer, GM quietly settles for an amount that is secret so that other, bereaved families won’t know that they’re part of a deadly, long term corporate conspiracy to keep killing motorists .

The crime scene as of now, taken from wire services, the NYTimes, WashPost, Reuters and Center for Automotive Safety:

Since 2004 – TEN YEARS AGO – General Motors has known they have a deadly problem in the guts of their small cars like the Cobalt built with UAW union labor in Lordstown, Tennessee.  The “switch plunger” is so poorly designed that if your car key is on a heavy key chain or you’re a short person, the key easily slips to the “accessory/off” position or even locks thus paralyzing your brakes, gas pedal and undeployable air bags.

After at least nine “internal studies” the company knew it had a big problem about a faulty doohickey which it kept secret from its customers and, given its clumsy bureaucracy, possibly even from itself.  To those customers who stayed alive to complain, GM quietly offered loaner cars. The main thing was to avoid law suits while not admitting or fixing the problem.

Glance at the diagram below (I hope it’s there) which shows both the old and new versions of the cheap critical component that, in its original design, simply was too short by 1.6 millimetres –  the difference between life and death.

Its corporate back to the wall, sheer accumulation of deaths and accidents has forced GM to recall 1.6 million of its compact cars that are too unsafe to drive. To be precise, the Chevy Cobalt, Pontiac Pursuit, Pontiac Solstice, Pontiac G5, Saturns Ion and Sky.  Plus a just-announced additional recall of almost one million small cars, plus 490,000 trucks and 172,000 more compact cars, meaning the automaker has now recalled almost five million vehicles in the United States during the first three months of the year, six times the number of vehicles it recalled in all of 2013.

Advice: if you own a GM compact get a qualified mechanic to check your ignition to see if it’s one of the older switches; if you must drive, use a single key unattached to a multiple key ring; barring that, grow half a foot or more.

Rep. Diane DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, calls for owners of these “terrifying” cars to stop driving them until they can be fixed,  meaning installing the improved ignition switch, a repair that costs the astronomical sum of $30.  Who pays for your loaner while your car is in the garage?

Legal note: the Obama administration’s 2009 bankruptcy bailout of GM stipulates that all product liability lawsuits filed on behalf of the injured or killed for crashes prior to 2009 are null and void.

Two shadows hang over this scandal: Kitty Genovese and Ralph Nader.  In 1964 Ms. Genovese, a 29-year sports bar manager in Queens, New York, was stabbed to death while, allegedly, 38 neighbors heard her screams but refused to get “involved”.   The actual facts turned out to be more complicated, but the “Genovese syndrome” passed into social psychology textbooks which, clearly, were not read by the folks at General Motors.

What stands out starkly is that for ten years masses of GM employees – lawyers, sales and service technicians, engineers, product development designers, ordinary Cobalt workers on the assembly line, knew, or had to have known, or suspected, or whispered among themselves about the killer ignition switch.   At the crudest level when a GM worker bought one of these cars at a company discount and discovered the problem, how come he or she didn’t gossip about it?  And if they did, who listened?

As far as we know, nobody blew a whistle.  No one screamed bloody murder.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which was practically invented by Ralph Nader’s crusade for safer cars, had a “massive information breakdown” by stonewalling, misreading, misrepresenting and ignoring reports of malfunction.   Parenthetically, via the revolving door, I wonder how many retired NHTSA employees went to work for the auto makers they are supposed to regulate?

For many American liberals Ralph Nader is Judas for “spoiling” the 2000 presidential election with his 537 Florida votes and thus handing the White House to Cheney and Bush.  We now know that GM’s malfeasance killed, officially 13 people and probably many more than the 300 cited by the Center for Auto Safety.  How many thousands of Americans are alive today because of Ralph Nader and his Raiders’ tenacious battle for safer cars (seat belts, air bags, sturdier chassis etc.)?

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives. Sigal and Doris Lessing lived together in London for several years.

October 08, 2015
Michael Horton
Why is the US Aiding and Enabling Saudi Arabia’s Genocidal War in Yemen?
Ben Debney
Guns, Trump and Mental Illness
Pepe Escobar
The NATO-Russia Face Off in Syria
Yoav Litvin
Israeli Occupation for Dummies
Lawrence Davidson
Deep Poverty in America: the On-Going Tradition of Not Caring
Thomas Knapp
War Party’s New Line: Vladimir Putin is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
Brandon Jordan
Sowing the Seeds of War in Uruguay
Binoy Kampmark
Imperilled by Unfree Trade: the TPP on Environment and Labor
John McMurtry
The Canadian Elections: Cover-Up and Steal (Again)
Anthony Papa
Coming Home: an Open Letter to 6,000 Soon-to-be-Released Drug War Prisoners From an Ex-Con
Ramzy Baroud
Listen to Syrians: The Media Jackals and the People’s Narrative
Norman Pollack
Heart of Darkness: A Two-Way Street
Gilbert Mercier
Will Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite Militias Defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq?
John Stanton
Vietnam 2.0 and California Dreamin’ in Ukraine
William John Cox
The Pornography of Hatred
October 07, 2015
Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Witness to a Troubled Saint-Making: Junipero Serra and the Theology of Failure
Luciana Bohne
The Double-Speak of American Civilian Humanitarianism
Joyce Nelson
TPP: Big Pharma’s Big Deal
Jonathan Cook
Israel Lights the Touchpaper at Al-Aqsa Again
Joseph Natoli
The Wreckage in Sight We Fail To See
Piero Gleijeses
Cuba’s Jorge Risquet: the Brother I Never Had
Andrew Stewart
Do #BlackLivesMatter to Dunkin’ Donuts?
Rajesh Makwana
#GlobalGoals? The Truth About Poverty and How to Address It
Joan Berezin
Elections 2016: A New Opening or Business as Usual?
Dave Randle
The Man Who Sold Motown to the World
Adam Bartley
“Shameless”: Hillary Clinton, Human Rights and China
Binoy Kampmark
The Killings in Oregon: Business as Usual
Harvey Wasserman
Why Bernie and Hillary Must Address America’s Dying Nuke Reactors
Tom H. Hastings
Unarmed Cops and a Can-do Culture of Nonviolence
October 06, 2015
Vijay Prashad
Afghanistan, the Terrible War: Money for Nothing
Mike Whitney
How Putin will Win in Syria
Paul Street
Yes, There is an Imperialist Ruling Class
Paul Craig Roberts
American Vice
Kathy Kelly
Bombing Hospitals: 22 People Killed by US Airstrike on Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan
Ron Jacobs
Patti Smith and the Beauty of Memory
David Macaray
Coal Executive Finally Brought Up on Criminal Charges
Norman Pollack
Cold War Rhetoric: The Kept Intelligentsia
Cecil Brown
The Firing This Time: School Shootings and James Baldwin’s Final Message
Roger Annis
The Canadian Election and the Global Climate Crisis
W. T. Whitney
Why is the US Government Persecuting IFCO/Pastors for Peace Humanitarian Organization?
Jesse Jackson
Alabama’s New Jim Crow Far From Subtle
Joe Ramsey
After Umpqua: Does America Have a Gun Problem….or a Dying Capitalist Empire Problem?
Murray Dobbin
Rise Up, Precariat! Cheap Labour is Over
October 05, 2015
Michael Hudson
Parasites in the Body Economic: the Disasters of Neoliberalism
Patrick Cockburn
Why We Should Welcome Russia’s Entry Into Syrian War