Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A voice in the wilderness: A call for safer cars predating Ralph Nader's "Unsafe at Any Speed"

Presented to the club by Roger B. Linscott in early 1965. Roger was, for many years, the associate editor of The Berkshire Eagle, Pittsfield's daily newspaper. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing in 1973, and died in 2008 at the age of 88, having been a member of the Club since 1950.

This paper predates by about nine months Ralph Nader's seminal book on the same subject, Unsafe at Any Speed, which was published November 29, 1965, but could well have served as an introduction to it.

Like most newspaper offices, ours is a regular port of call for a large and varied assortment of cranks and crackpots who fancy us to be the appropriate mouthpiece for their maledictions against mankind or who hope to find in us a willing vehicle for promoting whatever harebrained schemes they wish to foist upon the public. Some of these earnest but offbeat promoters can be put down as harmless eccentrics, and some are quite obviously psychopaths who belong in institutions.

In the latter category is one local character who, because I made the mistake of listening sympathetically when he first visited the Eagle, has made me his particular confidant. He comes to the office perhaps once a month, and his message is always the same: He is convinced that the Hotel Wendell building is top-heavy, and is in imminent danger of falling down with catastrophic consequences. Moreover he feels there is a conspiracy among our leading citizens to conceal this danger from the public, and he suspects that the conspirators are determined to silence him by fair means or foul.

Ordinarily I have an extremely difficult time easing this fellow out of my office, especially as he has a rather wild-eyed, hysterical manner which makes one hesitant to treat him brusquely. But on his most recent visit, two weeks ago, the problem took care of itself. Midway in his peroration he suddenly stopped short, announced that he had forgotten to put a nickel in his parking meter, and bolted out the door.

In my relief at being rid of him so easily, it was some moments before an obvious thought struck me. This man, a certifiable nut with clearly paranoid tendencies, owned an automobile and was apparently licensed to drive it on the highways and byways of the commonwealth. This bothered me. But what bothered me even more was that when I mentioned the incident to several other people, it seemed to bother them not one whit. The typical reaction was a chuckle and a shrug of the shoulders, accompanied by a remark to the effect that if all the persons unfit to drive were ruled off the road there might be precious few licensed drivers left.

More recently another episode brought home to me once again the extraordinary indifference of the average person toward the problems to highway safety. On Christmas Eve an elderly Lee (Mass.) couple and their daughter were killed in a singularly gruesome two-car accident on the Pittsfield-Lenox Road. The driver of the car which the police said caused the accident submitted in district court to findings of wet driving, drunkenness, operating to endanger and driving an unregistered car. He was sent to Northampton State Hospital for observation on the basis of testimony that he had been under mental treatment for some 20 years.

But the far more remarkable aspect of this case was the disclosure that this person had been issued a Massachusetts driver's license in November, six weeks before the fatal accident, notwithstanding the fact that during the previous four months he had received four district court convictions for motor vehicle violations, all of which had been reported to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and had been involved in two other accidents which had also been duly reported. Wondering how a person could obtain a license with this record, I inquired of the Registry and was told that he had failed to mention his mental record or court convictions on the application form, and that it is not customary for the Registry to check its [own] files in order to verify an applicant's statements before issuing a license.

Once again what bothered me most about the episode was not the laxity of the licensing procedure so much as the evident indifference to the laxity. The Registry official I talked to seemed quite unconcerned. When I was moved a few days later to comment rather caustically on it in the editorial column there was no evident public response. Individuals with whom I discussed it shrugged it off as neither surprising nor particularly shocking. Several of them pointed out to me that it is no more disturbing than the Registry's longstanding practice of restoring suspended licenses at the request of the offending motorist's legislator — a practice which is universally engaged in by even the most conscientious legislators and apparently condoned by their constituents.

My point in citing these two episodes is not to indict the Registry of Motor Vehicles, negligent though it often is, but rather to illustrate the curious ambivalence of the American public's attitude toward carnage on the highways. Outwardly, of course, we all deplore it, we preach against it, we write editorials about it, we heartily endorse safety campaigns designed to make us more aware of it; but we don't actually want to do much about it. We talk about the need for stricter licensing and for periodic re-examination, but we don't demand it with any vigor. We pontificate on the evils of driving after drinking; yet an astonishing number of otherwise responsible and law-abiding citizens think nothing of driving home from a cocktail party after four or five drinks. We complain about lax enforcement of speed limits, which most of us freely violate, and we complain about inadequate policing while denying to state and local police establishments the funds they need to do even a rudimentary job of highway patrolling. We in this room tonight represent, I expect, a singularly sober, staid and law-abiding segment of our community. Yet I venture to say there is not one of us does not on occasion violate the motor vehicle laws of the commonwealth, and without any discernible pangs of conscience. The motor car has made scofflaws of the best of us.

This ambivalent attitude is all the more extraordinary when one considers the truly staggering dimensions of the highway safety problem in both human and economic terms. In 1962 the highway death toll passed the 40,000 mark for the first time in U.S. history; in 1963 it reached an all-time high of 43,000, and although final figures are not yet available, it is believed that the record for 1964 was even worse [Editor's note: it was 45,645], despite the fact that our doctors are steadily becoming more proficient in keeping accident victims alive. Moreover, the traffic deaths tell only part of the story; for every person killed, 125 are non-fatally injured, and the total number injured on the highways each year is climbing almost astronomically. In 1963 alone, it is estimated, more than 4.5 million Americans were injured on the highways, and approximately 200,000 of these suffered permanent disabilities. In a sense, the most tragic aspect of all this is that by far the heaviest death and disability toll is in the younger age brackets — particularly males from 15 to 30 years old. Today more young people die from automobile accidents than from any other cause.

The byproducts in economic and legal terms are almost equally awesome. In 1958, when the highway toll was considerably less than today's, the National Safety Council estimated that traffic accidents cost the nation approximately $1.5 billion in lost wages, $1.8 billion in property damage, $150 million in medical expenses, and $1.7 billion in overhead insurance outlays — a total of about $5.3 billion in direct costs. In legal terms, highway accidents are making a mockery of our ideal of speedy justice by clogging court calendars to an increasing degree. In Massachusetts, which is not untypical, motor vehicle cases now comprise nearly two-thirds of all jury trials, notwithstanding the fact that the great majority of cases never actually go to trial. As an unhappy footnote to this it should also be observed that our claims procedure tends inevitably to be unfair in practice, however just [it is] in theory. Claims for minor injuries are generally settled quickly and often overgenerously, while payments for those who are killed or seriously injured on the highways are usually long delayed and relatively inadequate, especially in the case of low-income families which are economically in no position to hold out for a more favorable settlement.

I could go on for many, many pages citing other manifestations of the highway safety problem, but that is not the point of this paper. The one aspect of the problem that every one readily agrees upon is that its dimensions are staggering; where agreement is conspicuously lacking is on the question of what can be done about it. And here we find an astonishing thing. Although the automobile has been with us for more than 70 years and has been a major factor in our mortality rates for more than half that period, traffic safety has been the subject of an almost negligible amount of consistent, systematic research. In the words of Daniel P. Moynihan, former chairman of the New York Traffic Safety Policy Committee and now Assistant Secretary of Labor [later U.S. Senator 1976-2000; note also that Ralph Nader was an assistant to Moynihan at the time], "Automobile injuries reached epidemic proportions a generation ago — yet our efforts to control the problem are still largely based on a hodge-podge of suppositions and inferences derived from assumptions we have never verified and which, more significantly, we have never tried to verify."

Any systematic approach to the problem, it seems to me, should begin with a recognition of the two basic variables in the traffic equation: the individual driver, and the vehicle. Obviously both are closely interrelated; but considering them separately gives some useful clues as to what approaches are feasible and what ones are not.

At present the bulk of our effort to control traffic mortality is directed toward the first variable: the driver. On the face of it this seems a reasonable place to concentrate our efforts, since most accidents obviously involve a degree of human failure — but in practice the results have been pathetically unsatisfactory.

We have tried, and on a massive scale, the technique of exhortation. Enormous amounts of time, energy and money have been expended on traffic safety campaigns. Billboards and newspapers and radio stations have preached the message endlessly; the National Safety Council has spent millions promoting the slogan approach — "Slow Down and Live" — "The life you save may be your own!" — and has received abundant publicity for its periodic lugubrious predictions as to how many deaths and injuries will result from every holiday weekend.

Yet the exhortations have been largely ignored by a motoring public which, as I noted earlier, is shockingly indifferent to the problem, except on the discussion level. Why this indifference, this immunity to exhortation? Basically, it would seem, for two reasons: first, the average person's firm belief that he himself is a superior driver and that the exhortations are not for him but for everybody else; and second, that most Americans are incurable optimists, to who the prospect of death or serious injury on the highway seems remote and impersonal. You can tell him — quite accurately — that 50 percent of the cars now on the road will be involved at some time or another in an injury or death-producing crash, but he will remain sublimely confident that his car is one of the 50 percent who won't be.

Along with exhortation, we have tried, of course, to control the human element in the traffic safety equation through police action and criminal prosecution — to the tune, in fact, of some 20 million traffic court cases a year in the United States. Obviously this has an enormous deterrent effect, and would have a great deal more if traffic laws were enforced more efficiently and adjudicated more sternly. But just as obviously, the threat of punishment has not served to reduce the dimensions of the problem. The most one can say for it is that the situation would presumably be rather worse without it. Indeed, I would even be hard put to verify my statement that more rigorous enforcement of the motor vehicle laws would necessarily have any greatly beneficial effect, for the sober truth is that there are many indications to the contrary — such as the much-publicized crackdown on speeding which then-Governor Ribicoff instituted in Connecticut in 1955 and which was followed by an appreciable increase, rather than the hoped-for decrease, in the number of accidents and injuries per passenger-mile.

There are several plausible reasons why the threat of punishment has proved incapable of halting the increase in highway accidents. One is that traffic laws, of necessity, often violate the precept that a criminal law should be clear and comprehensible — such terms as "reasonable speed" and "all reasonable care" are vague to the point of virtually inviting violation and inequitable enforcement. Another problem is that accidents are often the consequence of inadvertent factors — an icy stretch of pavement, for example, or a brake failure — which do not involve any infractions of the law. And finally, disregard for traffic laws on the part of many otherwise responsible citizens tends to be encouraged by the arbitrariness with which they are often enforced, the haphazard fashion in which punishments are meted out, and the notorious ease with which tickets can be fixed in most localities.

Another aspect of the attempt to deal with the human element in the highway safety equation is through driver education — and here the results have been even less satisfactory than in the field of enforcement. Driver training programs are based upon the assumption that technical skill in operating a car decreases the likelihood of accidents — but unfortunately a growing body of evidence indicates that personality traits and emotional factors are far more important elements in one's driving performance — and these are elements which no amount of driver training is likely to change. There is, to be sure, some favorable correlation between driver training and accident rates — but this is probably attributable to the fact that the type of person who takes driver training is less likely to have an accident in the first place, and vice versa. Indeed, there are some skeptics who suggest that high school driver training courses may actually increase accident rates by encouraging teenagers to obtain their licenses earlier than they would otherwise.

The same complications which tend to nullify the value of driver training in the highway safety problem also militate against the effectiveness of stricter licensing requirements. As I remarked at the beginning of this paper, we can and should be much tougher than we are in ruling obviously unfit drivers off the road. But I would be the last to suggest that this is any sort of cure-all. For one thing, very few emotionally unstable drivers can be readily identified as such; "accident prone-ness," insofar as it exists, is usually detectable only after the damage has been done. For another thing, the political obstacles to a really stringent licensing policy are probably insuperable in a society where a driver's license is for most persons virtually an economic necessity, popularly regarded less as a privilege than as a cherished right. And finally, physical impediments are not really a major factor in the total accident picture. Statistically, after all, our worst drivers are young men in the prime of life who are both mentally and physically fit.

So much for the human factor in the highway equation. What I have tried to show in the preceding paragraphs is that, whatever the benefits derived from our heavy concentration on this facet of the problem, they have not served to bring the problem under control. Nor are they likely to, given the enormity of the problem, the complexity of the psychological and political obstacles, and the sheer impossibility of changing human nature to any significant degree. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that if the driver were the only factor in the equation we would have to throw up our hands and resign ourselves to a continuing rise in highway casualty rates and all of the vast problems which they bring in their wake.

Happily, however, the picture is not that bleak. For along with the driver, the other major variable in the highway equation is the vehicle; and here we are dealing with an inanimate and relatively tractable element. If we can't do much to make drivers safer, we can at least do a great deal to make automobiles safer. If we can't prevent accidents, we can at least make them far less costly in both human and economic terms by better automotive design.

Our failure to have done so long ago is, in my opinion, a tremendous indictment of the automotive industry and, more particularly, the American motoring public, which after all has the last word in how automobiles are designed. A recent issue of Traffic Safety magazine quoted Col. John Strapp of the Air Force as saying that "the automobile industry is the only one whose product can still be sold after killing thousands and injuring millions of its customers every year." [Editor's comment: Except for the tobacco industry.] Several months ago Prof. J. Douglas Brown of Princeton University, addressing a national convention of engineers, put the point in the form of a question: "If engineers can design space ships to go to the moon, why can't they design a safer automobile?"

The answers, of course, is that they can. A vastly safer car. Some engineers estimate that if all cars incorporated the safety features that have already been developed and proven, the number of annual highway fatalities could be cut from 40,000-plus to 10,000 or less, with a proportionate reduction in serious injuries. And this without adding prohibitively to the cost of the product.

There are two aspects to the safety design problem. First are improvements designed to help prevent accidents from happening. Second, and even more important, are what might be called "fail-safe" features designed to keep bodily injuries to a minimum when a collision occurs, the car stops short, and the passengers keep traveling at the speed of impact until they are stopped by the instrument panel, the steering wheel, the windshield or, possibly, the pavement via an open door.

In the first category — accident prevention, the faults of most present-day automobiles are numerous and well-documented. To cite but a few: the heavy emphasis on "low silhouette," which often seriously impairs the driver's vision and could be, but isn't, partially remedied by vertically adjustable seats; or the widespread use of tinted windshields, which are promoted as a deterrent to daytime glare but are actually a safety hazard because of the dangerous extent to which they impair nighttime vision; or the non-standardized and generally inefficient arrangement of instrument panels, often compounded by a hood over the panel so that the instruments can not be read without taking one's eyes off the road for longer than desirable; or the tendency to excessively insulated and cushioned interiors which cut the driver off from the "feel" of the movement of the car, from his sense of speed, and from sensing an incipient skid or roll; or the failure to provide as standard equipment on most models independent braking systems for front and rear wheels, so that if one fails the car can still be brought to a stop.

In the second category — the "fail-safe" features designed to minimize injuries when crashes do occur — the deficiencies of most contemporary cars are even more numerous. Again, to mention only a few, we find doors without safety locks, which fly open on impact; cardboard-like roof structures designed for appearance rather than strength; poorly anchored seats which easily become dangerous missiles; protruding dashboard control knobs and door and window knobs, all sources of lethal injury; jutting metal dashboards and chisel-like rearview mirrors; and, of course, non-collapsible steering wheels neatly designed to impale the hapless driver. An orthopedic surgeon writing in the American Medical Association Bulletin recently remarked that to speak of the interior design of most automobiles as "faulty" is "actually a gross understatement, as there is almost no feature of the interior design that provides for safety. It is surprising anyone escapes from an automobile without serious injury."

The deficiencies are not, of course, limited to the interior. Most bumpers today are principally ornamental — so much so, indeed, that several makes and models actually put bumper guards on their bumpers. Yet a tough, energy-absorbing bumper of hydraulic design could have an enormously healthy effect in reducing the rate of deceleration on impact, and bumper-resistant frames along the sides of a car can provide vitally important resistance to lateral impact. From the viewpoint of the pedestrian — who is the victim of almost half of the automobile fatalities in urban areas today — the exterior design of the typical Detroit dreadnaught is particularly menacing. According to one standard textbook on preventive medicine:
If one were to attempt to produce a pedestrian-injuring mechanism, one of the most theoretically efficient designs which might be designed would closely approach that of the front end of some present-day automobiles. When the pedestrian is struck in a typical encounter, the bumper fractures the lower leg; the needless headlight hood or other protuberances rupture the liver, spleen or kidney; and commonly, his head strikes an ornament or outside mirror o the car's hood, causing a punctured skull. Then, he is often thrown against the windshield, where he is likely to meet a passenger on the way out.
In any event, it can be stated as unassailable fact that death and injury on the highways can be drastically reduced — perhaps by as much as 75 percent — through better automotive design and by better packaging of the driver and passengers. The obvious question is why hasn't this been done? The answer, quite simply, is that Detroit is in the business of selling automobiles, not selling safety. It tailors its product to the marketplace; and the American auto buyer is primarily interested in appearance and power, not safety. One industry spokesman estimated that "less than 3 percent of new car buyers look under the hoods, and fewer still ask questions as to construction or reliability." Another spokesman — the top safety official of Chrysler — has likened autos to "women's hats, which must have a special attractiveness that inevitably leads to compromises with function and safety." The result is that vast sums are spent on automobile styling, while (relatively speaking) nickels and dimes go for safety engineering. And this, of course, suits the industry's short-run profit goals very well; for, as one observer has remarked, "the industry is built on calculated, non-functional obsolescence — the appeal of the new color, the new gimmick, the new silhouette, the added horsepower or wheel base or wheel track. What else is it that induces a motorist to turn in his '63 model for a '64 or a '65?"

And in all candor, it must be added that the auto industry has not been at all hesitant about catering unabashedly to the frivolous and often dangerous tastes of the marketplace. If the public is overly enchanted with excessive speed and horsepower, it is certainly part of the result, as well as the cause, of the industry's excessive emphasis on these factors in its promotion. Consider, for example, this piece of copy from a magazine advertisement: "All new! All muscle! All glamor! That's the '63 Buick Wildcat! American's only luxury sports car ...  with an almost neurotic urge to get going. Very definitely for the sportsminded male and his equally adventurous mate. There's a Wildcat at your dealer's just rarin' for someone like you to give it a brisk workout." Or this advertising headline: "Pontiac's new, big-bore Strato-streak V-8 with a terrific thrust of 227 blazing horsepower." Or the two-page magazine ad showing a long blurred streak of color and the caption: "9.1 seconds ago this Plymouth was standing still." Or consider some of the names which Detroit gives to its various models in order to suggest speed, power and danger: Thunderbird, Spring, Comet, Meteor, Rocket, Tempest, Fury, F-85, Dart, Lancer, Sting Ray. These, one might justly suspect, are not names selected by an industry eager to convert the public to the idea of safer and more sensible transportation.

It is true, of course, that the industry has made some concessions to safety in response to its critics. All cars now come equipped with anchorage for seat belts, for example; and some cars make available such features as padded dash boards and even collapsible steering columns. But here, two points must regretfully be noted. First, the provision for seat belts was the result not of any initiative in the auto industry but rather of state legislation compelling it — legislation which the industry initially opposed with considerable vigor. Second, the other safety features which have been introduced in recent years are almost all optional extras rather than standard equipment and in many cases fall short of reasonable safety standards in performance, being designed more to give the appearance of safety than to ensure it. Meanwhile, to quote another critic, the industry goes right on designing cars capable of going 140 miles per hour, even with the knowledge that as cars are presently designed, no one would come out alive from a 40-mile-an-hour crash into a barrier."

So much for the indictment. What is the remedy? In the absence of any concerted public demand for a safe automobile, is there any likelihood that the industry will regulate itself in this respect — will it make safety a matter of primary concern regardless of the vicissitudes of the marketplace?

I think not, and most persons who have studied the problem more exhaustively seem to agree. the auto industry is so intensely competitive that even if the manufacturers were genuinely eager to subordinate style and appearance to more sensible considerations they could not afford to add to the cost of their cars for the sake of safety without risking disastrous consequences in the frantic competition for the sale.

What, then, is the answer? Like many others, I believe — and now I belatedly come to the main point of this paper — that the only sensible and realistic answer is for the federal government to establish and enforce safety standards in automobile design, just as it has long established and enforced safety standards in the design of trains and aircraft. And lest anyone protest that this is a socialistic notion, I would point out that passenger cars are the only form of interstate travel which is not regulated by the federal government for purposes of safety.

That regulation of auto safety would be well within the constitutional authority of the federal government is beyond dispute. On this score, it is relevant to recall that some years ago a number of deaths caused by the suffocation of children in abandoned refrigerators cuased Congress to pass — over initial opposition from the manufacturers — a law requiring refrigerators to be equipped with a safety device enabling them to be easily opened from the inside. And this notwithstanding the fact that only 39 deaths had been attributed to this cause during the previous three years. The vastly greater justification for safety regulation of a product which kills more than 40,000 persons a year hardly need be pointed out. In the case of the railroads, the death toll among passengers and, particularly, train crews, was a national scandal until the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act gave the federal government the power to require the installation of two basic safety devices — air brakes and the automatic coupler — which had long been available but had not been voluntarily adopted by the industry. In the case of aircraft, private as well as commercial, stringent federal regulation of safety standards has long been taken for granted, with highly salutary results.

Necessarily, federal promulgation of automobile safety standards would have to be accompanied by an etensive and continuing program of safety research, comparable to the research programs that have long been carried out by the federal government in other areas of public health. In more than half a century of experience with the motor car we have acquired surprisingly little firm knowledge about how to make it a less deadly product, largely because we have made no massive effort to do so. But i would submit that the grim and growing highway toll makes it more clear every day that such an effort is long overdue. The idea of federal regulation of automotive safety standards may sound radical today. But a generation hence I think we will be astonished that it took so long to come about.

Editor's note: While it took a few more years after this paper was written for the highway death rates to begin declining, we think Roger would be pleased to learn that in 2009, the death toll on U.S. highways, 33,808, was the lowest in more than 60 years, and that 2010 is on track to come in even lower. More impressively, the 2009 death rate was 1.13 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, compared with 5.39 in 1964, just before this paper was written. In absolute number, the peak year for fatalities was 1972 with 55,589, but even then the rate per 100 million vehicle miles had dropped to 4.40. A rate below 1 per 100 million now seems possible, perhaps even in 2010 or 2011.

However, it's interesting to note that even in 1965, when viewed in the context of total miles driven, the automotive death rate, at about 5 per 100 million vehicle miles, was far lower than it had been historically. In the early 1920s, when vehicle-mile records begin, the rate was more than 20 per 100 million vehicle miles; in the 1930s it gradually dropped from 15 to about 11; in 1946 it fell below 10 for the first time. (Data source — PDF link)

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