Finally got a chance to finish the book
my preliminary review
of Kenneth Whyte’s “The Sack of Detroit: General Motors and the End of American Enterprise]
First, it is a very interesting book on some of the history of automobile safety and has many foot notes.
- A must read for folks in the vehicle and highway safety business.
I do not agree with the authors opinion that Ralph Nader armed with his book "Unsafe at Any Speed"
and in concert with Senators and ATLA played a major role in the demise of Detroit, particularly the then corporate giant GM.
- Note that the resulting regulation of the automobile industry also applied to imported vehicles and why weren't foreign automakers also "sacked"?
Nader with his hidden behind the scenes work with Senators and trial lawyers and others did definitely cause some serious hurt on Detroit.
- However...BIG business is a multi faceted endeavor with many many moving parts and pieces.
- Nader and his pack of Senators and ATLA members and others did serious damage to the reputation of GM & Detroit.
- Whyte points out how difficult it is for a major company to shed a tarnished reputation, whether based on truth or lies. It affects the reputation of the whole brand, not just an individual product. I agree. However it was 40+ years before the near full implosion of GM in 2008.
- Nader hurt them badly however there are many other reasons which added to implosion of GM.
The book covers the 1965 Ribicoff 'safety' hearings
demonizing vehicles, particularly GM, which did not help GM or Detroit.
- The hearings claimed Detroit had "lethal' product designs which were premeditated and responsible for the killing of 50,000 Americans a year.
- The hearings ignored or dismissed any contributory responsibility for the deaths from possible issues of
The hearings simply wanted to make monsters out of the successful automotive industry by blaming their vehicle designs for ALL the deaths.
- roadway design and traffic
- pedestrian proximity to vehicle traffic and
- drivers who were not using safety devices (like seat belts),
- Impaired/drunk driving
- and i add a present day (2021) note:
- distracted driving!! which may have also factored into things back in the 60s!
- The hearings were championed by the American Trail Lawyers Association's (ATLA) who in parallel with the hearings launched a campaign 'Stop Murder by Motor' (a thinly disguised pitch for anyone injured in a car crash to contact an ATLA lawyer and file a lawsuit!)
The ATLA "Stop Murder by Motor" campaign was also launched with political weight thrown in:
- Senator Robert Kennedy commented that ATLA's focus on traffic safety is good since traffic safety is 'perhaps the greatest of the nations public health problems' and it's particular emphasis on the "sacred cow" of vehicle design
- Senator Moynihan's also spoke at the launch of the campaign and denounced the "brute greed and moral imbecility" of the auto industry and shortly thereafter wrote an article for The Public Interest which was highly critical of the auto industry and in ways paralleled Nader's upcoming book.
- And throw in "safety crusader" Ralph Nader who also spoke at the launch and emphasized the many things that he included in his 1965 book "Unsafe at Any Speed"
- His appearance there and at many other 'safety' conference and meetings and publicity stunts helped sell his book!
He often used an horrific example of a 'child decapitated on an open glove box' which to date he has never provided any documentation that it ever occurred! He liked to grab headlines.
Whyte points out that seat belt laws and DUI enforcement were probably most responsible for the decline in fatalities in automobile crashes over time:
- Seat Belts were installed by vehicle manufacturers in cars as early as the 1950s and by most in the 1960s
- Interestingly when available as an option less than 10% of car buyers bought the seatbelt option.
- Detroit added seatbelts as an included option well before it was mandated by Federal regulation.
- In several examples Whyte demonstrates that politicians talked the talk of safety but didn't walk the walk...
THEY DID NOT USE THEIR SAFETY BELTS!
The vehicle manufacturers installed seat belts well before mandatory regulations yet they could not get people to use them and
- For example:
- Lyndon Johnson in 1964 giving the press a tour of his ranch in TX drove unbelted, with a beer in hand, speeding 90 mph with 3 passengers (reporters) in the car on roads near his Hill Country Ranch in Texas.
- Senator Robert Kennedy after the 1965 Safety hearings where he made major political points drove home with Nick Thimmesch at 75 MPH with the top down in his Lincoln Continental as he 'inveighed against the villainous Detroit Moguls' all the while as his safety belt sat unused on the seat beside him.
- After the signing of the 1966 national Traffic safety and Motor vehicle Act Sonosky and Ribicoff drove off in the Senators Ford Mustang, On Pennsylvania Avenue they saw Howard Pyle of the NSC and stopped and waved,. Pyle wakled over and stuck his head in the car to say hello, adding "Senator, your set belt is unbuckled"
Laws to enforce and require seat belt use did not happen until around 1988!
The book is a good demonstration of the politicization of science which may have launched a LOT of needed safety research but ignored two MAJOR fundamental causes of deaths on the highway:
- lack of seat belt use and laws, and
- the need for strict DUI laws and enforcement.
And today (2020-2021) we can also understand how when politics and science are involved in a battle, society can lose lives due to politics:
There were MANY legal rulings which exonerated the Corvair design however Nader didn't accept those rulings in his book "Unsafe at Any Speed"
- As an example see Drummond vs GM court ruling, which was heard by and ruled on by a judge, not jury
In that case the plaintiffs applied many of Nader's "ideas, arguments and rhetorical strategies" from his book in putting the case before the judge in the trial.
- Why? Because of Nader's dismissal of juries to reach the right conclusion in automobile design cases in his book "Unsafe at Any Speed"
The ruling from the case:
- "It is the Court's conclusion that the Corvair automobile of the 196o through 1963 variety is not defectively designed nor a defective product; that no negligence was involved in the manufacturer's adoption of the Corvair design; that the Corvair matches a standard of safety which does not create any reasonable risk of harm to an average driver; that the cause of the May I6, I960 accident and the death of Don Wells Lyford was due solely to the actions of said deceased and not to the design or any handling characteristics of the Corvair automobile. Judgment will be for the defendants"
But unlike the hearings which were front page news, the ruling was 2nd page news and basically ignored.
However as a result of the 1966 decision 1/3 of all lawsuits against the Corvair were dropped and the rest settled for around 1.3% of the original amounts demanded. GM would clear all but two of its Corvair cases at minimum costs.
The problem was that as a result of the highly publicized and incorrect opinions in "Unsafe at Any Speed"
which were also thrown about and publicized as truth at the 1965 safety hearings the public opinion of the Corvair was that it was defective and flawed
(it wasn't) and so that trashed sales and sullied the reputation of GM.
In another small but unheralded victory for GM, Cornell released in Dec 1968 an enormous study of crashes in thirty states:
- "Cornell's Automotive Crash Injury Research Project (ACIR) released in December 1968 was an enormous study of crashes In thirty states dating back to 1956. It found that the major cause of traffic fatalities and serious injuries for all cars was ejections, usually caused by rollovers. It offered a rare brand-by-brand look at collision outcomes, something Nader had long been demanding. In crashes in which rollovers were the principal cause of injury or death, occupants were ejected from Volkswagens at a rate of 31.1 percent, from foreign sports cars at 42.9 percent, and from the Corvair at 13.9 percent. The range for other American-built cars was 17.7 to 40.0 percent. In non-rollover crashes resulting in deaths, Corvairs performed on par with other North American- and European-built cars. This provided perhaps the best answer to Senator Kennedy's question about empirical data on the Corvair's safety relative to other cars. It came too late to help the Corvair."'
Yet Nader would not concede any possible mistakes in his book and opinions or let things go...
- "Under further pressure from Nader, who claimed that "the best place to test the Corvair is on an objective proving ground with adequate instrumentation'
- NHTSA organized a thorough independent test of the Corvair.
- A panel of experts were assembled including Edwin Resler from Cornell, Paul Wright from Georgia Tech, Ray Caldwell of Harvard Business School.
- They spent 2 years on the project including 4 months of road tests at College Station TX where the Corvair was tested against the 1962 Falcon, the 1962 Volkswagen and the 1963 Renault" all operated by robots to avoid human subjectivity.
- The panels findings were published on Jan 25, 1972 in Panel Evaluation of the NHTSA Approach to the 1960-1963 Corvair Handling and Stability
which found that
- "it is the opinion of the panel that the Corvair quantitatively meets or exceeds the standards set by contemporary cars in stability tests, cornering tests and roll-over tests. For this reason, the panel concluded that the 1960-1963 Corvair does not have a safety defect and is not more unstable or more likely to roll over than contemporary automobiles."
- 'The handling and stability performance of the 1960-1963 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover and is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and domestic'"
However a relentless and stubborn Nader still would not consider the proof that his opinions were flawed and so called the NHTSA report a "shoddy, internally inconsistent whitewash' of the Corvair's 'notoriously unsafe handling'
Main point was Nader was obsessed with acting like only he knew the truths about safety and so ignored and trashed anything and anyone that didn't agree with him. He was very good at politicizing science which included questionable objectivity if anything didn't agree with his opinions and book Unsafe at Any Speed.
Kenneth Whyte’s “The Sack of Detroit: General Motors and the End of American Enterprise
” (Knopf) is an excellent read and presentation of the evolution of vehicle and traffic safety regulation.
The book provides background on Nader which brings into question his objectivity and motivations and ability to concede any of his mistakes.
- Nader, while being paid at the department of Labor, worked as an insider utilizing the immense power of the federal government to accumulate information and either pass it on to the political theatrics of the 1965 Rubicoff hearings or include it in his book.
- Through Senator Moynihan he enjoyed direct access to many government agencies.
- He used Moynihan's office as cover to secretly obtain research from Cornell University, SAE, AMA, NASA, etc.
- Secretly collecting information and writing his book 'Unsafe at Any Speed' (with his publisher) on the sly.
- He funneled requests for information through Moynihan's secretary, who he also had approach law firms suing GM so Nader could secretly review details on the trials including depositions, interrogatories and so on which provide him 'inside information' which he included in his book.
- Rubicoff, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Executive reorganization first held 3 days of hearings into the "Federal Role in Traffic Safety" in March 1965. These hearings were generally ignored. However, when reassembled with much publicity in July 1965 the hearings enjoined GM and other vehicle manufacturer executives to testify.
- Nader, although being paid by dept of Labor was an unlisted consultant to the Rubicoff (and Kennedy) hearings.
The book was an inside job!
- During the Ribicoff hearing, Nader was the secret 'expert-in-chief' who sat behind a door passing notes to Jerome Sonosky supplying information and ideas for lines of attack in the hearing.
- While consulting for the hearings he also completed a report to Senator Moynihan on the need for federal safety regulation of vehicles which appears to be a first draft for his book.
- The report was never placed on the public docket (Whyte found it in Moynihan's papers at the Linrary of Congress). Nader asked that the Dept of Labor bureaucrats delete his name from project reports.
- All during the summer of 1965 the publisher of his book, Richard Grossman, frustrated that Nader was behind on completion of his book, spent 22 days during the summer of 1965 at the Gramercy Inn, with two typewriters that he and Naders used, to complete the book manuscript using many secretly obtained legal briefs, patent filings, newspaper clippings, government papers and academic reports as sources.
Nader became a respected safety advocate while using questionable tactics to obtain information and trash the Corvair and demonize GM, and the Detroit automobile industry. And he attacked and denigrated any report and/or anyone that was critical or contrary to his views and opinions.
Vehicle design is an important part in highway safety
roadway design, speed limits and enforcement, seat belt laws, and DUI laws and enforcement also ALL contribute to vehicular and highway safety.
Careful consideration of all these items provide the path to reduce the death rates for motor vehicle travel.