Skip to content
Ralph Nader > Special Features > The Progressive Magazine- The Profit in Highway Slaughter

Under present conditions there is little economic incentive for the auto maker to concern himself seriously with automobile casualties and collisions-for the costs and penalties are not upon him. Actually, the more cars depreciate through collisions, the greater the demand for new and used cars. Only when there is a real threat of cost or other adverse feedback, as in the mass litigation over the 1960-63 Chevrolet Corvairs, does a manufacturer take notice and correct as General Motors did for the Corvair rear suspension system after those four tragic model years. But such feedbacks are very infrequent and, until the Corvair cases, never on a mass basis. Neither do automobile collisions and injuries threaten the economy generally-at least there is no felt threat to the economy as there would be if, for example, a pest attack destroyed most of the cotton crop. For the costs of the highway epidemic are essentially economic demands feeding a vast highway accident service industry composed of medical, hospital, police, legal, insurance, repair, and administrative services.

To put it squarely, death on the highway produces incomes and profits for hundreds of thousands of people and companies. It is a multibillion-dollar industry whose dynamics are hardly about to be in the direction of self-liquidation. The energies of lawyers and physicians (to choose the skills ideally most subject to professional standards of conduct) are so taken up in the care and handling of post-accident problems that they have had little time, even if they had the inclination, to exert effective and sustained efforts toward prevention of collisions and injuries.

Thus, the economics of the highway accident industry and the operational health of the highway transport system do not breed self-correcting forces and the attention of government that obtains to a substantial degree in other forms of transportation. This condition has made the annual toll of 50,000 dead and millions injured the most expendable horror of our technological society. In America, life is cheapest on the highway.

How tragic are the results and how costly is the impact on purchasers of America’s largest consumer durable. The car buyer pays more than $700 (according to a study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, and University of Chicago economists), when he buys a new car, for the cost of the annual model change which is mostly stylistic in content. Consider how much safer today’s automobile would be if over the past two decades the car buyer received annually a substantial safety advance-both in the operational and crashworthy aspects of his automobile-for that $700 payment.

Instead, cars are being built which, standing still, can kill adult and child pedestrians who fall or are inadvertently pushed into their sharp points and edges. And passengers can die in collisions at speeds as low as five miles per, hour. Is it any wonder that, at present rates, at least one out of every two living Americans will either be killed or injured (disabled beyond the day of injury) in an automobile collision? —

A genuine democracy has to provide for the participation of the public in decisions relating to technology whose use is so fraught with tragedy to millions of people. There is an old Roman adage which says: “Whatever touches all should be decided by all.” The automobile touches us all in the most ultimate ways. The safety the motorist gets when he buys his car should not be determined solely by manufacturers—especially a tightly knit few—whose interests are necessarily those of profit-parochialism.