SALISBURY — Few drivers can even imagine owning a car without seat belts, airbags and antilock brakes. Yet 50 years ago, cars had none of these safety features. They were marketed for horsepower, fins and power steering.
All that changed when a 31-year-old lawyer published “Unsafe at Any Speed,” a chilling critique of the auto industry’s refusal to make cars as safe as possible. Using Chevrolet’s new Corvair model — with its rear engine that unbalanced the car and encouraged spinouts — as his main example, Ralph Nader’s book was a bestseller. More importantly, it embarrassed a reluctant Congress into acting: It created a national safety agency that eventually became the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Nader, who will speak at a Salisbury Forum on March 4, is a native of the Northwest Corner. He was raised in Winsted and attended its semi-private Gilbert School. He graduated magna cum laude from Princeton, then enrolled at Harvard Law School, where he began to research auto safety. He has said that by his second year at Harvard he already wanted to get a law passed to protect drivers.
After publication of his book, Nader knew how to press his case with the media. But the biggest breakthrough came when General Motors was caught using private investigators to follow him. Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff called GM’s investigation an effort to smear Nader, the company apologized and settled with Nader for $450,000, which he used to fund the first of many public interest organizations he has founded.
Of course, many people now think of Nader as a five-time candidate for president. He has run as a write-in candidate, as the Green Party candidate twice and as an independent twice, most memorably in the “hanging chad” election that resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court awarding Florida, and the presidency, to George W. Bush.
Nader has never been a one-cause man. Soon after the success of “Unsafe at Any Speed,” he moved to Washington, D.C., where scores of eager young activists, known as Nader’s Raiders, joined him to take on government agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration and Congress itself.
His capacity for work seems limitless. Even now at 81 he writes a weekly, nationally syndicated newspaper column, and he opened his American Museum of Tort History in Winsted last fall. He is in great demand as a speaker and teacher: While in Salisbury March 4, he will speak to an all-school assembly at The Hotchkiss School and have lunch with a constitutional law class there.
Ralph Nader speaks at a Salisbury Forum on Friday, March 4, 7:30 p.m., at Housatonic Valley Regional High School. As with all Forum events, admission is free and seating is unreserved.