What a vote for Nader means

To cynics, it's a vote for Bush. But you won't hear Bush or Gore rip the auto industry on its Motor City turf the way Nader does in this speech.

Published October 25, 2000 12:46AM (EDT)

Many of the attacks against Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate for president, come from Democrats concerned that Nader backers will seal a George W. Bush victory. With the race going down to the wire in traditional Democratic havens like Oregon, Wisconsin and even Minnesota, Nader is being set up as the villain of any campaign scenario that ends in a Gore defeat. A vote for Nader, according to these critics, is a "wasted vote," one that accomplishes nothing, since it's one vote less for Gore.

Nader backers, for their part, are trying to persuade liberal or "progressive" voters that a vote for their man sends a distinct message.

But what, exactly, does a vote for Nader stand for? He's against capital punishment; he's for both military downsizing and withdrawing troops abroad; he supports "civil unions" for gay couples; he opposes many of the trade expansions of the last decade, including GATT and NAFTA; he supports public financing of political campaigns; he supports a universal, single-payer healthcare system; and he backs ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

There are other issues: He supports jail time, not just civil fines, for corporate officers who violate consumer protection regulations; he supports a moratorium on irradiating meats; and he supports legalizing industrial hemp as a way of diminishing the economic crisis among small farmers.

And, of course, there's the promise of a true straight talker. While most politicians do tailor their speeches depending on what audience they are speaking to, most don't challenge their audiences as Nader did in his Oct. 10 remarks to the Detroit Economic Club.

At that pro-auto-industry venue, Nader blasted car manufacturers for decades of manipulating the government to dodge safety and environmental regulations, charges he first leveled in his groundbreaking 1965 work "Unsafe at Any Speed." The speech is rude, impolitic and completely unapologetic. And it may be the perfect Nader primer.

An excerpt follows:

Invitations to me from the Detroit Economic Club do not come frequently to me for obvious reasons. And I welcome the opportunity as an invitation for candor.

My father came to this country in 1912 and, as he said when he sailed past the Statue of Liberty, he took it seriously. And his first job was in the Maxwell Auto Works here in Detroit. He had started out as an autoworker.

And in 1939, he and my mother took me to the World's Fair in New York City and I was a little boy at the time, and I was very excited by the major display at the World's Fair, which was by General Motors. And I ran around and saw all these proposed futuristic cars driven by non-internal-combustion engines with all kinds of dazzling innovation that we still are waiting for today, so many years later.

Well, I remember, I ran in to my parents, so excited, shouting, "GM, GM, GM." Little did GM know, I guess.

When I started on motor vehicle safety issues back in law school at Harvard in the 1950s, what impressed me most was the simple nature of safety devices that were not in cars. For example, the padded dash panel that was invented by the makers of the Roman chariots in ancient Rome. The collapsible steering column was patented before World War I. Seat belts were available to pilots in World War I so they wouldn't fall out of airplanes when they somersault in their area of battles. And head restraints; and other stronger door latches.

And when I started criticizing the auto companies for not putting these simple, lifesaving features in cars, that was considered a radical move by the auto companies and by quite a few commentators as well. One particular struggle illustrated the non-inventive syndrome inside the auto industry: when studies showed that in frontal collisions, if you hit your head against the rearview mirror and it did not break away, it could be a fatal injury.

And it took us years to get the auto company executives to let their engineers do what they knew how to do and to put breakaway rearview mirrors in cars that we have today. All of these safety devices cost a pittance even on the first round of installation.

In the mid-'60s, two of the motor vehicle safety and highway safety laws, with the support of Lyndon Johnson, managed to get through the Congress. Motor vehicle safety has saved over a million lives and millions of injuries prevented or reduced in severity and huge causalities reduced in Europe and Japan because they have to build cars that have to meet our standards. And so their people benefited as well.

The enormous success in the first few years of the Auto Safety Agency's administration [is] still to our benefit today. The death toll per 100 million vehicle miles in 1966 was 5.6 fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles driven. Last year it was 1.6.

So regulation does work, and a coordinated national effort to have everybody involved, address the problem, can diminish the problem. And yet we have so many other problems and injustices in our country toward which there is not a coordinated effort in using the genius of our scientists and engineers, the rule of law, to push these technologies off the shelf and into the marketplace to benefit consumers.

Well, what has happened now is that the Auto Safety Agency has become a consulting firm for the auto industry. The process started under Ronald Reagan and George Bush and continued unabated under the Clinton-Gore administration. With the exception of the airbag standard, which had a good push forward from congressional legislation, there has been very little advance in automotive safety and fuel-efficiency technology in people's motor vehicles in the last 20 years. The last statutory fuel-efficiency standard was established in 1975, and the goal was by 1985, a motor vehicle average fuel efficiency would be 27.5 miles per gallon.

Under Clinton-Gore, motor vehicle fuel efficiency was allowed to actually decline. It is now at the lowest level since 1980, at around 24 miles per gallon. That means more pollution into people's lungs, more money out of their family vaults, more importing of foreign oil and more impact on the more global issues of the greenhouse effect and ozone depletion.

Of course, Clinton-Gore had a chance in '93-'94 when they controlled the Congress, but they didn't take advantage of it at all. And the [National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration] has lost a lot of great talent. Its crack efficiency team of engineers and scientists has been disbanded, and nothing is going on in this area. Even though we now are seeing what happens when certain petroleum supplies are taken, and how we're driven, not toward efficiency in heating, lighting, air conditioning, water or motor vehicle systems, but we are now being driven to destroy or impair our wildernesses in northern Alaska and others in order to drill for more oil.

The emphasis now is on electronics and, you know, geographical positioning systems, and so forth. Basically, there have been no upgrades of standards that were issued by our government for the last 30 years. The notorious tire safety standard was issued in 1968 and not upgraded. This wasn't even designed for radial tires. In fact, a lot of the industry decided that they exceed federal safety standards because these standards are obsolete and antiquated.

I wanted to give you a few examples besides the tire safety standard. Wheel crush standard is now a useless standard. Fuel economy standards, I mentioned, have not been upgraded since 1975.

Child restraint standards should cover children up to 80 pounds; now it's only 40 pounds. Child restraint standards should be dynamically tested with various-sized dummies; they are not now. Gas tank, rear gas tank and side impact standards have not been upgraded. Uniform car quality grading information does not apply to light trucks or SUVs.

And there are other examples as well [of] safety standards that the Department of Transportation has not issued, including: seat structural strength to keep the seat from ripping up and pushing you forward in a collision; seat-back failure prevention; ... tire-inflation-warning dashboard indicator -- that would have come in handy with the Firestone tire/Ford Explorer combination -- there are no standards; frontal-intrusion prevention to protect legs and feet; a rollover prevention -- that takes thousands of lives a year, vehicles rolling over.

We need, in this country, new motor vehicle statutory authorities. In the light of the Firestone tire [defect] coupled with the less than stable Ford Explorer SUV, a stability problem was pointed out by Ford engineers as early as 1990 inside the company. In the light of the 104 deaths in this country and several thousand deaths abroad ... In the light of that, there is now in Congress an attempt, in the rainy days of the session, before they go home, to enact the following amendments, which I believe are necessary. One, to put finally, after 35 years, criminal policies for knowing and willful violation of motor vehicle standards or knowing or willful refusal to recall known defective cars that are impairing human life.

There are dozens of federal statutes that have criminal penalties in them. The food and drug laws, for example, the occupational safety and health laws. Many statutes have criminal policies, but when the law was passed in 1996, the auto companies got them excised from the legislation that was going through Congress on its way to Lyndon Johnson for signature. And we always thought that the chickens would come home to roost, and they have on more than one occasion, including the Firestone/Ford Explorer situation.

The second change that's needed is to increase the [maximum] civil penalties from $925,000. The Senate and House bills raised it to $15 million.

The third is to require the testing before certifying for compliance with safety standards. The House bill requires such tests for second and final stage manufacturers, where the problem is most prominent.

Fourth is to extend the statute of limitations. Right now if you have a car that is over eight years old, and the company discovers a serious defect -- say a metallurgical defect that was not designed for -- they don't have to recall the vehicle. After eight years, they are in the clear.

The proposal in the House and Senate was [to] increase it to 10 years and to increase [the] tire recall statute of limitations from three to five years. And then also to place an obligation on the manufacturers to review and collect information. To learn about a possible safety defect and report it through the Department of Transportation before the disasters start to mount.

Right now, the manufacturer must act to recall known defective vehicles and alert the secretary of transportation, but only after deciding to recall not based on what the manufacturer knows before making the decision. The agency budget is now 30 percent lower in real dollars than it was in 1981. And, of course, they have to deal with so much more than [in] 1981.

It's important also to note that there have been other situations that would have incurred criminal penalties in the past. And Mitsubishi Motors, for example, has admitted that they have hid complaints about defective parts for 30 years. The defects include failing brakes, leaking fuel caps and faulty clutches. This coverup by Mitsubishi Motors was exposed when Japanese regulators found consumer complaints stuffed in employee lockers during a surprise inspection at the company headquarters in Japan.

And closer to home, documents recently came to light showing that Ford Motor officials knew for years about problems with a computerized ignition system that shuts off engines if they get too hot. Although federal regulators looked into the matter several times, Ford insisted it had known of no particular defect and never gave regulators documents in its possession that could have shed light on the problem.

Now, [for] all of these and other knowing and willful criminal behavior, coverups, there is no criminal penalty. But if you are ever in Colorado or Wyoming and Idaho, and you get caught harassing a wild ass, you can go to jail for one year.

I'd like to point out a few things about the responsibility to the auto industry, if I may. Bill Ford made a very nice speech a few months ago on the responsibility [of] the auto industry. But every time we read these nice statements and we get encouraged, we trip over their lobbyists in Washington who are driving in reverse. They're pushing to block all kinds of advances in health, safety, emissions control and fuel efficiency.

Now I happen to know, as many of you know, that there is a big difference between what the engineers and scientists are able, willing and very pleased to do inside the auto companies, and what the executives at the top are willing to let them do. And that's not only documented by history, it's documented by people who leave the industry, and who are not giving us pie in the sky technology dreams. These are solid advances that by now should have taken our motor vehicles way over [a] 50-miles-per-gallon average. It should have taken our motor vehicles up to 50-miles-an-hour fixed-barrier collision, walking away without injury. It should haven taken our motor vehicles into new alternative forms of vehicle propulsion systems, and not stay with what seems to be the eternal, infernal internal combustion engine, which has been with us for far too long, over 100 years now.

But just to show you what happens, here's -- from 1986 -- here is a policy and strategy meeting, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 1986, Board of Directors Room of the Ford Motor Co. And Donald Peterson was chairing the committee, and here are the notes from that committee meeting:

"At the federal level, both the House and Senate struggled with auto safety bills during 1985. It is likely that a bill will pass in 1986. At the beginning of the session, bills were introduced that would reinstate five miles-per-hour no damage bumpers, require full front seat air bags, establish passenger car crash worthiness ratings and labeling requirements, set performance criteria for occupant protection and side impact collision, impose criminal penalties on corporate employees who knowingly and willfully fail to inform consumers of safety related defects."

Now watch this:

"Through the efforts of a broad-based industry coalition led by Ford, we were able to keep the mandatory air bag bill from moving forward, delete the criminal penalty provisions, modify the vehicles' side requirements, and limit the vehicle crash worthiness proposal to a DOT coordinated research project. If a bill emerges from the Congress in 1986, we expect it to be in a form that we would find acceptable."

Acceptable to who? To all the people who died because of this type of lobbying by Ford and General Motors? And now, when you look back on it, doesn't it look even more craven and shortsighted and myopic for the leaders of one of the greatest industries in our country to behave this way?

In fact, in contrast to what they say in terms of flowery speeches about corporate responsibility, all these provisions would have been in years ago to save more and more lives of men, women and children, prevent the family anguish, reduce the enormous human consequential tragedies, reduce enormous wage loss and other costs and health costs, etc., that would've come with it.

What is it about this industry that sits on such talent -- and it has an obligation to the global environment, and to the highways, and to a more balanced transportation system, and to the health and safety of millions of people, and to energy conservation -- that it is constantly putting the brakes on itself, unless it is countervailed and challenged by government regulation, or trade union challenges for occupational safety, or consumer or environmental group pressure?

I don't know the answer to this.

I thought that when they got on the right track after the motor vehicle safety laws and fuel efficiency laws they would stay on track. That there would be a new culture of innovation, as if people mattered, as if our stature as an industry in the rest of the world mattered.

But again and again a lot of companies have to be dragged here in Detroit or in Michigan, either by Japanese or by German competition, or by government regulation, or by product liability lawsuits, which disgorged so much damaging information that the government would never have disgorged about safety defects in cars, trucks and vans.

Now that these pressures are gone, the regulatory pressure is out in the period of great corporate profits, when it is expected that the industry would really push its technology forward, as if human beings and the environment mattered.

And No. 2, the trade unions don't have any bargaining power anymore, in terms of occupational health and safety.

And No. 3, if the government backs down, the environmental consumer groups still [don't] have much leverage on a PAC-ed, greased Congress in a system of cash-register politics in Washington, D.C.

And No. 4, the competition from abroad has been quite neutralized. I don't think that DaimlerBenz is ever going to compete with Chrysler. Do you? And how about all the cross-ownerships of U.S. companies into Japanese auto companies? And all the joint ventures between GM and Toyota?

I'd just like to conclude with a reference to Detroit here. The auto companies are the most powerful force in this city. Look around the city. Are you proud of the public transit facilities in the city? Are you proud of how the roads have been maintained in many areas? Are you proud of the quality of your taxicab fleet? I was in a cab years ago in Detroit, and went in several other cabs, and I could see the pavement in total disrepair. Are you proud of the responsibility of the auto industry as part of this community of metropolitan Detroit? Many of whose executives have fled and let poverty, and bank and insurance company redlining, and consumer exploitations in the ghetto go without abatement, without challenge?

I think it's a disgrace and I think we ought to really raise our expectation levels very, very high in accordance with what this industry is capable of when it's put under pressure. When it really has to move, when it has to really exert the talents that are within its ranks. You remember how fast this industry converted in World War II. No industry before or since converted the automobile into producing tanks and airplanes and armored personnel carriers for the effort against the Nazis and the Japanese imperial state. And they did it, not just because the government was ready with big contracts, they did it out of a sense also of duty. They would rather have sold cars; they did it out of a sense of duty and they got it done.

And what I'm saying now is the health and safety of the American people, and the global environment, and the need to become more energy independent and self-sufficient, and the need to breathe cleaner air, and the need to set an example for the rest of the world so they don't say, well, you messed up your area's water and you built cars like that.

Let me just thank the Economic Club of Detroit for their invitation. And let me also urge the next time you get a presidential candidate here who panders to you, you should feel insulted, as Al Gore [when] he came here, and in effect said, "I'm with you" after he wrote a book really criticizing the internal combustion engine. I have always seen myself as working to make the auto industry proud of itself. To make it proud of itself that it has products that save lives and prevent injuries and help conserve our energy supplies.

And yet they always look at my efforts as if they were subversive to the auto industry's efforts. But I think the mission of the auto industry in this world is quite a bit higher than that defined by the executives of the auto industry. This is a time of consistent auto industry profits. This is a time when the auto industry should really become technologically innovative, and we should take off the shelf existing technology to save lives, prevent injuries and help reduce the burden on our very polluted environment.

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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