If Auto Safety Defects Are Criminalized, Shouldn’t Ralph Nader Be in Jail?

Washington, DC, October 2, 2000 – The Competitive Enterprise Institute today charged that congressional proposals to criminalize auto safety defects failed to address the full range of safety problems faced by consumers.  CEI argued that, if criminal penalties were going to be imposed for subjecting the public to defective auto products, then that same liability should cover government officials and their supporters as well. For example, when Joan Claybrook headed NHTSA under the Carter Administration, her agency claimed that air bags were fully tested, excellent for children, and so effective that car occupants did not have to wear lapbelts. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader touted airbags at a 1977 press conference, and actually demonstrated a simulated air bag deployment on an unbelted 3-year-old girl.

In reality, air bags have turned out to a net hazard to children, and only a supplement to seatbelts rather than a replacement for them. More importantly, these risks were in evidence decades ago, as a 1979 General Accounting Office report made clear.

Similarly, when actual air bag deaths began to appear in the early 1990’s, NHTSA’s first priority wasn’t to warn the public; it was to avoid “bad press”, as documented in a 1991 agency memo. And on the even more serious issue of deaths due to the downsizing effects of NHTSA’s new-car fuel economy program, the evidence of cover-up is equally clear.  In the words of a 1992 federal appeals court decision, NHTSA evaded the size-safety issue through a combination of “fudged analysis,” “statistical legerdemain,” and “bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo.” 

If auto safety defects are going to be criminalized, then we should deal with the most important cause first—NHTSA’s own misconduct.

CEI, a non-profit, non-partisan public policy group founded in 1984, is dedicated to the principles of free enterprise and limited government. For more information, please contact Emily McGee, Director of Media Relations, at 202-331-1010, ext. 209.