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Your Safety and Your Congress in 1965 and Now

The 50th anniversary of my book, Unsafe at Any Speed, which analysts associate with the launch of the modern consumer movement, prompts comparisons between 1965 and 2015.

The life-saving impact of the book through the highway and auto safety laws Congress passed in 1966, creating an auto safety enforcement agency to lift up safety standards for motor vehicles, has been historic. According to an analysis of deaths per mile driven by the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) “the 1966 federal laws, federal agency and general measures they created – have averted 3.5 million auto deaths over the past 50 years.”

CAS executive director Clarence Ditlow declared that “3.5 million represents the difference between the number of deaths that there would have been if the death rate had stayed at 5.50 per 100 million VMT (vehicle miles traveled) in 1966 versus what it went down to in each subsequent year, falling to 1.07 by 2014. [Lives] have been saved by traffic laws (seatbelt use, helmet and drunk driving laws), safer roads, vehicle safety standards and vehicle safety improvements spurred by consumer demand for more safety after Unsafe at Any Speed.”

Of course, even more injuries were prevented or reduced in severity by these vehicle and highway safety advances.

How did this happen? As author and consumer advocate Mark Green writes, “The issue is not the size of government but how smart democracy can successfully save millions of lives.” It started with knowledge about the gap between cars, promoted for their style and horsepower, and what feasible safety devices were being left out of the vehicles by the auto industry bosses.

The more people knew, the more they questioned why their friends and relatives did not survive vehicle crashes. Congressional hearings, widely disseminated by the mass media, addressed this issue again and again. It was because the auto companies wanted to market anything but safety. It was also because there was no meaningful federal policy and program for highway safety, leaving it to the states, whose legislatures were uniformly under the control of industry lobbyists.

Unfortunately the insurance industry (with few exceptions such as Liberty Mutual) focused on drivers and premiums but not getting safer vehicles on highways.

The winning combination included 1) Enough influential senior members of Congress, led by senators Abraham Ribicoff, Warren Magnusun, Gaylord Nelson and Walter Mondale, along with Congressman John Moss; and 2) reporters such as the Washington Post’s Morton Mintz, United Press’s Patrick Sloyan, the Detroit News’s Bob Irvin, James Ridgeway of the New Republic and the New York Times’s Walter Rugaber, who stayed with the developing exposés week after week. There were also columns by the famous Drew Pearson that appeared in 500 newspapers. Finally there was President Lyndon Johnson and his Chief of Staff Joseph A. Califano, who encouraged Congress to act and then organized the signing ceremonies for the landmark auto safety legislation in the White House in September 1966.

It took only ten months from the appearance of Unsafe at Any Speed to the first regulation of the giant auto industry for safety and fuel economy.

All this movement to protect Americans from industry malfeasance would prove difficult today. Congress is a wholly owned subsidiary of Big Business. Reporters are not the same for lots of reasons beyond their control in the new media business. Even after corporate crime and abuse is reported by leading newspapers, efforts in Congress to correct and reform sputters.

Congress has become the “graveyard” of our country’s needed changes that are supported by a majority of the American people. Look at congressional deadlock on increasing the minimum wage, climate change, regulatory frameworks for biotechnology, nanotechnology and infrastructure repairs of airports, bridges and railways. Medical and hospital malpractice and over-prescription of medicines (including those that are antibiotic resistant) and avoidable hospital-induced infections are together taking over a quarter of a million lives annually. Yet Congress does little to curb medical negligence. Both political parties are dialing daily for the same commercial dollars – not seriously championing advances in health and safety.

Yet, it is still possible to make changes through Congress, which is made up of only 535 men and women who need your votes more than they need corporate lobbyists’ money. One change after another long overdue change can be achieved if the majority of the people want it. With this support, it takes one percent or less of the voters back home to organize and get Congress to do the people’s bidding.

That one percent or less, sometimes far less, needs to spend a “hobby-amount” of time each year (say 300 to 500 hours) organizing in every congressional district and a “hobby amount” of money to maintain a full-time office of three or four full-time advocates in each District.

How do I know this? First of all, it took less than that to make many important reforms and changes in American history. Second, our numerous citizen groups made changes in industry after industry – from coal to drug and food companies to the polluting chemical companies. And, third, a handful of dedicated activists pushed Congress to create the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in 1970, to name just one of many “small group” achievements.

So take heart, America! We have far more problems than we deserve and far more solutions on the shelf than we apply. That is the “Democracy Gap” that is being widened by the plutocrats and the oligarchs from Wall Street to Washington. A result-driven, democratic, citizen resurgence would bring the best out of the American people, often with Left/Right alliances that are unstoppable. Visit Nader.org for examples of what small numbers of activists with limited budgets have accomplished.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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