Nader Launches the Consumer Rights Movement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed led to the passage of federal automotive safety regulations and began the U.S. consumer rights movement.

Summary of Event

Ralph Nader’s 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile posited a connection between the number of automobiles manufactured with mechanical or design defects between the years 1955 and 1965 and an increased number of vehicular accidents. This publication led to a greater public awareness of deficiencies in the manufacturing safety and design regulations of the U.S. automotive industry. The information provided by Nader was supplemented by testimony given during congressional automobile safety hearings that were promoted by Nader’s revelations. Data gathering and debate led to drafting of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (1966) and the Highway Safety Act Highway Safety Act (1966) , both signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. These acts federally regulated the design of motor vehicles and marked the beginning of the consumer rights movement in the United States. Unsafe at Any Speed (Nader) Consumer rights Commerce, government regulation of Automotive safety Automobiles [kw]Nader Launches the Consumer Rights Movement (Nov. 29, 1965) [kw]Consumer Rights Movement, Nader Launches the (Nov. 29, 1965) [kw]Rights Movement, Nader Launches the Consumer (Nov. 29, 1965) Unsafe at Any Speed (Nader) Consumer rights Commerce, government regulation of Automotive safety Automobiles [g]North America;Nov. 29, 1965: Nader Launches the Consumer Rights Movement[08700] [g]United States;Nov. 29, 1965: Nader Launches the Consumer Rights Movement[08700] [c]Manufacturing and industry;Nov. 29, 1965: Nader Launches the Consumer Rights Movement[08700] [c]Social issues and reform;Nov. 29, 1965: Nader Launches the Consumer Rights Movement[08700] [c]Transportation;Nov. 29, 1965: Nader Launches the Consumer Rights Movement[08700] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 29, 1965: Nader Launches the Consumer Rights Movement[08700] Nader, Ralph Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;consumer rights Haddon, William, Jr. Magnuson, Warren G.

Nader’s publication was based on his research on the manufacturing of automobiles and how U.S. automakers resisted numerous governmental attempts to require improved safety standards. A 1959 Department of Commerce report predicted that by 1975 automobile accidents would cause fifty-one thousand deaths annually. Nader found that this automobile fatality number would be reached by 1965, with the increase in fatalities resulting from several defects that existed in the mechanical designs of automobiles. In response to these predictions, automobile manufacturers attributed the increased number of automobile deaths to driver negligence rather than mechanical failure.

The 1960-1963 Chevrolet Corvair Chevrolet Corvair models manufactured by General Motors General Motors (GM) received significant attention from Nader. The cars’ rear-engine designs resulted in several wheel-suspension problems that caused many drivers to lose control of their automobiles. More than one hundred lawsuits against GM were initiated, prompting GM to redesign its 1964 and 1965 Corvair models to eliminate this defect.

A 1965 study conducted by Consumers Union Consumers Union , the organization that tests products for the publication Consumer Reports, found that since 1955, when new automobile sales in the United States totaled approximately eight million, there had been a decrease in the quality standards of automobiles manufactured. Of the thirty-two automobiles randomly tested by Consumers Union, all were found to have defects within the first five thousand miles of test driving. In another study, in 1963, the American Optometric Foundation American Optometric Foundation tested fifty-six automobiles and found that not one could provide a suitable visual environment for daytime driving. In 1965, a public television program, Death on the Highway, Death on the Highway (television program) connected specific design hazards with several makes of automobile, bringing national attention to the growing concern with automobile safety.

Even with increased public awareness and government prodding, U.S. automobile manufacturers would not improve their safety standards. In 1959, the New York State Joint Legislative Committee on Motor Vehicle and Traffic Safety New York State Joint Legislative Committee on Motor Vehicle and Traffic Safety had recommended that seat belts be sold as standard factory-installed equipment. In 1960, the automobile manufacturers’ lobbyists used their influence to defeat a bill that required seat belts on all new automobiles sold in New York. New York, like many other states, was unable to require rigid automobile safety standards because of the lobbying power of the automobile manufacturers.

Undaunted by the automotive industry’s resistance to more stringent safety standards for the manufacturing of automobiles, Nader continued his consumer movement. In his testimony before Senator Warren G. Magnuson’s automobile safety subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce Senate Committee on Commerce , Nader recommended that all automobiles should have seat belts, collapsible steering wheels, and passive passenger restraints. He also urged that automobile windows should be made of tempered glass, as in Europe, rather than the laminated glass in use in the United States. Laminated glass consists of a plastic glass core with glass bonded to it, while tempered glass is solid glass treated by heat. In an accident, laminated glass will not prevent a passenger from being ejected through the window and then being pulled back, with extensive facial lacerations a likely result. The stronger tempered glass would reduce the chances of a passenger being thrown through a window.

Through his magazine articles, the book Unsafe at Any Speed, and testimony before Congress, Nader argued that the automobile industry had permitted stylistic concerns to take precedence over safe design and proper construction. He further believed that not only automakers were blameworthy; the general state of American industry favored profit over improved technology, even at the expense of the consumer. Nader contended that food and drug violations, defective automobiles, professional malpractice incidents, and other business crimes were more detrimental to the safety and health of society than were violent street crimes. Nader’s publications and publicized testimony before Congress began a consumer rights movement and eventually influenced Congress to pass laws to protect the safety of consumers.


In 1966, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act were signed into law, largely because of the influence of Nader’s book, which built public and congressional support for stronger automobile safety legislation. The safety acts listed twenty-six safety standards for 1968 automobile models that were to be implemented by January 31, 1967. These standards included provision of equipment as recommended in Nader’s book: collapsible steering columns, safety glass and glazing materials, air pollution control devices, anchors for both lap and shoulder belts, and recessed instrument panels. In addition, the National Traffic Safety Agency was formed to ensure that automobile manufacturers complied with these acts. The first administrator in charge of the National Traffic Safety Agency was William Haddon, Jr.

The important aspect of this legislation was the power given to the federal government to regulate American automobile manufacturers. This legislation marked the first time that the government departed from its “hands-off” approach. It also represented some of the first proconsumer legislation to be passed by the government.

Airbags, which protect drivers and passengers in automobiles, are among the results of consumer-safety legislation.

(National Highway Safety Administration)

In 1967, the National Traffic Safety Agency became the National Highway Safety Bureau National Highway Safety Bureau (NHSB), part of the newly formed Department of Transportation Department of Transportation, U.S. . Haddon was named as the first director of the NHSB. Within the first two years of the NHSB’s existence, twenty-nine motor vehicle safety standards were issued, and ninety-five more were proposed. The automotive industry had made seat belts standard equipment, but the NHSB required shoulder harnesses to be installed on all new automobiles manufactured on January 1, 1968, or after.

In 1969, automobile air bags received national attention as a result of public hearings before Senator Magnuson’s Commerce Committee. Nader by that time had recruited several attorneys from Harvard Law School into his consumer movement. With funding from Consumers Union and from Nader’s own sources, lobbyists urged legislators to support a requirement that all new automobiles manufactured be equipped with air bags. General Motors had quietly tested air bags in the early 1950’s, but technical difficulties and lack of adequate proof that the air bags reduced passenger injuries during an accident led GM to discontinue this program.

In November, 1970, after an executive reorganization, the NHSB was replaced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It interpreted the safety laws differently than had its predecessor, the NHSB. According to the NHTSA, air bags were not the only equipment that complied with the passive resistance safety standards set forth earlier by Magnuson’s committee hearings. Alternatives included fixed cushions within the vehicle interior, self-fastening seat belt systems, and crash-deployed blankets. It was not until 1989 that federal legislation required automakers to provide passive restraints on all new automobiles.

Automobile safety served as a starting point both for Nader as a consumer advocate and for the consumer movement in general. Throughout the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Nader exposed the unsafe environment that existed for consumers and society. He demonstrated that packaged foods in supermarkets sometimes contained carcinogenic (cancer-producing) ingredients to preserve their visual appeal to consumers. In addition, he castigated the meatpacking industry for transforming diseased and decayed meat into supposedly safe items. In his research, Nader found that poor sanitation facilities led to the inclusion of insect remains and rodent fragments in the frankfurters sold in the supermarkets. He contended that the chemical colorings that cosmetically improved the appearance of meat could also impair the health of the consumer. As a result, Congress passed the Wholesome Meat Act (1967) Wholesome Meat Act (1967) and the Wholesome Poultry Products Act (1968) Wholesome Poultry Products Act (1968) .

Nader’s research extended to the workplace, based on his premise that workers were part of his consumer advocacy movement. He publicized occupational hazards that ranged from numerous cases of brown lung disease in cotton mill workers to cancer-producing X-ray radiation doses to which medical technicians were exposed. In 1967, Congress passed the Radiation Control for Health and Safety Act Radiation Control for Health and Safety Act (1967) as a result of Nader’s consumer-safety campaigns.

Nader believed that three principal forces were necessary to strengthen the consumer movement: pressure on federal, state, and local legislators; workers “blowing the whistle” on illicit practices of their companies; and development of a citizen-initiated political action organization to be a watchdog for corporate abuse. Nader testified and lobbied for numerous reforms. As a result of his pressure, consumer laws were passed relating to natural gas and pipeline safety, occupational health and safety, and coal mine health and safety. Although Nader could not infiltrate corporations, his movement encouraged employees to speak out against their corporations. With his own funding, Nader created Public Interest Research Groups Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) in the 1970’s on college campuses. He urged students to set up PIRG organizations to research issues and lobby for consumer causes. By 1975, more than 145 PIRGs were on campuses throughout twenty states, thus completing Nader’s dream to mobilize a nation of consumer advocates.

Nader’s investigations on automotive safety tied into the belief that highway laws could reduce the number of vehicular accidents. One such law involved requiring seat belts Seat belts . In 1978, Tennessee became the first state to require seat belt restraints for young children. By 1985, all fifty states had enacted child restraint laws. Another debate focused on the issue of lowering speed limits, both as a means of promoting safety and as a way of conserving gasoline.

Nader’s efforts and the consumer movement in general won widespread approval but led to some questions. Manufacturers continued to raise the argument that free markets provided the safety measures that consumers demanded. If consumers truly wanted increased safety, the argument ran, some entrepreneur would be willing to offer it on the market for a profit. Legislation requiring additional safety measures therefore forced consumers to purchase more safety than they were willing to pay for and more than they thought worth the cost. As consumers became more aware of safety issues, sellers were forced to confront lawsuits charging products with being unsafe. A dilemma remained of how many accidents were worth paying to prevent. Unsafe at Any Speed (Nader) Consumer rights Commerce, government regulation of Automotive safety Automobiles

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burda, Joan M. An Overview of Federal Consumer Law. Chicago: American Bar Association, 1998. Practical guide prepared by the American Bar Association.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham, John D. Auto Safety: Assessing America’s Performance. Dover, Mass.: Auburn House, 1989. Explains the thirty-year struggle to resolve the controversy over the use of occupant restraint systems in motor vehicles. Depicts the effect of the 1966 safety acts on the automobile industry and the consumer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. Preventing Automobile Injury: New Findings from Evaluation Research. Dover, Mass.: Auburn House, 1988. A representation of then-current research on motor vehicle-related injuries and recommendations to prevent automobile injuries. The findings are based on the collaborative efforts of several medical and educational institutions. Consists of major papers and comments by those who made presentations at or participated in the New England Injury Prevention Research Center Conference in December, 1987.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holsworth, Robert D. Public Interest Liberalism and the Crisis of Affluence: Reflections on Nader, Environmentalism, and the Politics of a Sustainable Society. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman, 1980. A discussion of the beginning of the consumer movement and Nader’s contributions to it. Although the book discusses the consumer consciousness of the 1960’s, it also depicts the apathy of consumers in the 1970’s. A scholarly work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCarry, Charles. Citizen Nader. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972. Discusses Nader’s consumer movement and his enemies. Focuses on the negative aspects of Nader as a consumer advocate, private citizen, and writer. This book’s merit is that the reader can view Nader from an oppositional stand. A good psychological portrait.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nader, Ralph. In Pursuit of Justice: Collected Writings, 2000-2003. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004. In this collection of more than five hundred pages, Nader addresses consumer safety, corporate abuse, environmental issues, and more. Includes an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile. 1965. Expanded ed. New York: Grossman, 1972. An attack on the U.S. automobile manufacturing industry. Its central argument is that automobile manufacturers sold vehicles that they knew were unsafe in the name of profit.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sanford, David. Me and Ralph: Is Nader Unsafe for America? Washington, D.C.: New Republic, 1976. Book about Nader by a personal associate. The focus is on the events that surrounded Nader and Sanford’s interpretation of Nader’s reaction to these events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Congress. House of Representatives. Committee on Government Operations. Government Activities and Transportation Subcommittee. The Administration’s Proposals to Help the U.S. Auto Industry. 97th Congress, 1st session. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1981. Hearings before a subcommittee held on May 13 and 14, 1981. Contains transcripts, statements, and letters.

Hazardous Substances Labeling Act Is Signed

Congress Passes the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act

Congress Passes the Consumer Credit Protection Act

Wholesome Poultry Products Act Is Passed

Design for the Real World Calls for Industrial Design Reform

Categories: History