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The American Way of Death

Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile

by Ralph Nader
Grossman, 365 pp., $5.95

Safety Last: An Indictment of the Auto Industry

by Jeffrey O’Connell, by Arthur Myers
Random House, 226 pp., $4.95

As so often happens, when the minds of many people have been silently brooding over the same subject, there has recently been an outbreak of books, articles, and legislative investigations, all devoted to assessing the mechanical defects, the bodily hazards, and the mounting social disadvantages of the motor car. The tone of this discussion has been critical, not to say sacrilegious. Some of the critics have dared to say that the Sacred Cow of the American Way of Life is overfed and bloated; that the daily milk she supplies is poisonous; that the pasturage this species requires wastes acres of land that could be used for more significant human purposes; and that the vast herds of sacred cows, allowed to roam everywhere, like their Hindu counterparts, are trampling down the vegetation, depleting wild life, and turning both urban and rural areas into a single smudgy wasteland, whose fancy sociological name is Megalopolis.

The priesthood of the Sacred Cow, very sensitive to the mildest heresy, now shows definite signs of alarm, alternating plaintive moos with savage bellows; for in their religion, the cult of the Sacred Cow is closely affiliated with an older object of worship, the Golden Calf. With justified trepidation, the priestly establishment feels religion itself (capitalized) is being challenged—that religion for whose evidences of power and glory the American people, with eyes devoutly closed, are prepared to sacrifice some 45,000 lives every year, and to million, often irreparably, more than a million and a half more. Only war can claim so many premature deaths; for the death rate from motor cars is greater than the combined death rate from falls, burnings, drownings, railroads, firearms, and poisonous gases, plus some two thousand other deaths from unidentifiable causes. And though only roughly half as many Americans were killed outright by autos in the last four-year period as were killed in our armed forces during a similar term in the Second World War, nearly three times as many were injured.

The current uprising against the miscarriage of the horseless carriage has long been brewing; John Keat’s The Insolent Chariots broke the painful silence as far back as 1958. Only childish petulance on the part of the car manufacturers and their allies makes them attribute this spreading dissatisfaction with their product to the outspoken criticisms of a few mischievous critics, since the latter, till now a sorry few, have had none of the auto industry’s facilities for commanding public attention and suppressing debate. The roots of the current revolt spread over a wide area, and they go much deeper than even the most impassioned advocates of safer motor car design yet realize.

IF THE TEMPLE of the Sacred Cow is crumbling, it is because the whole mode of existence for which it is the prime mover has become antagonistic to the genuine human needs it was once supposed to serve and enhance. The fact is that the great American dream of a nation on wheels, which began with the covered wagon, has come to a dreary terminus. The very success of the auto industry in fulfilling the mechanical conditions for that dream has turned it, ironically, into a nightmare. An essential part of the American’s delight over the auto was a happy leftover from pioneer days: the ingratiating idea of private freedom, in the sense of being able to go anywhere one willed, at any time one willed, at any speed one willed, up hill and down dale exploring the great open spaces, and at least getting away from the familiar habitat, the daily round, the mechanical grind. In what has belatedly been called “automobility,” now that we are losing it, the personal “auto” was even more essential than the mechanical “mobility.”

Until about 1930, this dream bore more than a faint resemblance to actuality. Even such a fastidious soul as Henry James hailed the aristocratic joys of travel by motor car, which opened up the landscape and refreshed the spirit; so much so, that such usual interruptions as a leaky tire or a boggy road, if not too frequent, only added an extra spice to the adventure. Unfortunately, one of the conditions for enjoying this freedom was the existence of other possible modes of transportation, to handle mass demands, such as the wonderful transportation network, of railroads, electric trolleys, and steamboats that once spanned the country and not merely took up much of the travel load but met different human needs at different speeds. By now people have fallen into the habit of characterizing the pre-motor-car era as the “horse-and-buggy” age, as if fast transportation were unknown till the auto came. Actually, electric trolleys, in New England and the Middle West, travelled over their own rights of ways at speeds of fifty miles an hour: I cherish a picture post-card, c. 1910, showing such a trolleycar, sensibly streamlined, that served Indianapolis. As with the mass movement into suburbia, which coincided with the mass production of motor cars, the desired freedom depended upon creating a more complex pattern of both movement and settlement, maintaining and improving a balanced transportation system, and maintaining and improving old cities. Had those two essential factors been understood and respected, the motor car could have made an invaluable contribution in creating a regional distribution of population. As in the Netherlands today, this would give the countryside the social advantages of the city, and multiply the number of cities with easy access to the countryside, without the compulsive and wasteful routines that have now been developed to cope with the uncontrolled explosion of motor cars.

THE HUGE SUCCESS of the auto industry, not merely in multiplying the number of cars, but in utilizing its quasimonopolistic resources and public monies to elbow out competing form of locomotion and transportation, has turned the dream of automobility into the anxiety nightmare it has become today. From that nightmare Americans are now belatedly struggling to awake: the nightmare of the air becoming toxic with poisonous exhausts, including the highly lethal carbon monoxide; of the water supply, polluted with deadly lead from gasoline exhausts already half way to the danger point even in the Arctic wastes; the nightmare of diurnal mass commutation by car, along freeways where speed is compulsory, where the constant tensions demonstrably produce higher blood pressure, where a single car, stopping in time to avert an accident, may trigger a succession of more serious accidents in the tail-gateing cars behind, even when traveling at the usual drugged crawl of rush hours.

The motor car, it goes without saying, has brought many pleasant and desirable benefits; and certain by-products, like the beautiful Taconic Parkway in New York, remain permanent contributions to amenity and esthetic delight. But the whole picture has become increasingly dismal, and the most attractive feature of the American dream, freedom of movement and settlement, is turning into a system of choiceless compulsion. Just as old Henry Ford graciously said the consumer could have a car of any color he wanted as long as it was black, so motor travel is reaching a point where the driver can go anywhere he wants to, at a high speed, so long as he demands no change in either the environment or the destination. G. K. Chesterton’s epigram “Nothing fails like success” may yet prove the epitaph of the motor industry. Though danger and death have played a part in the awakening, frustration and boredom have perhaps played a greater part—if only because courting danger has unfortunately proved one of the chronic modes of faking real life and finding momentary relief from its emptiness and its grim routines.

The signs of this revolt are multiplying. Just a few years ago the motor car owners of the San Francisco Bay region voted $750 million to rebuild the fast public transportation system which the worshippers of the Sacred Cow had cleverly scrapped only twenty years before. But even more significantly, at the moment I write, news comes from San Francisco that “an overflow crowd of spectators cheered wildly at the City Hall here…as the Board of Supervisors voted down two proposed freeways on which the Federal Government was willing to put up two hundred and eighty million dollars.” Even worse, these delirious iconoclasts are demanding that the Embarcadero Freeway, whose construction, half-way through, was brought to an end by public demand, should be torn down. Is it not indeed time that Detroit began to pay a little attention to the feedback? If the current disillusion with the motor car keeps on growing, auto industry investments may not remain so profitable, unless Detroit’s current representative in the Defense Department manages to involve the country in even more extensive military aggressions than Vietnam.

But to go back to the American dream. In the 1920s when a score of small corporations still gave the color of “free enterprise” to the auto industry, the automobile was a crude but relatively honest machine: clumsy in its transmission system and gear shift, capricious in its starting devices, unreliable in its braking capability, decidedly old-fashioned in its reliance upon the gas engine, but still, for all its adolescent gawkiness, a functional machine, designed for transportation and recreation. Around 1930, just when the “new capitalism” suddenly slumped down to earth, the motor car industry picked itself up by exchanging economy for style. General Motors led the way here, and even Ford was compelled to follow. In the new hierarchy of values, recreation, reliability, safety, efficiency, economy all took a lower place. Style and speed were what counted. At this point, the automotive engineer took his orders from beauty specialists, whose job was to give the car a new look every year, in order to make last year’s model unfashionable, that is, prematurely obsolete. The pioneer’s dream wagon entered Madison Avenue’s fairyland.

WITHIN THE NEXT TWO DECADES, the motor car became a status symbol, a religious icon, an erotic fetish: in short, “something out of this world,” increasing voluptuous and tumescent, as if on the verge of an orgasm. What words other than Madison Avenue’s can adequately describe these exciting confections, glittering with chrome, pillowed in comfort, sleepy-soft to ride in, equipped with mirrors, cigarette lighters, radios, telephones, floor carpeting; liquor bars and tape-recorders are still optional. But in achieving these delights the designers so far turned their backs on the sordid realities of life as to increase the dangers through accidents by displaying jutting knobs, projecting, often knife-edged, instrument panels, murderous wings, confusing shift levers, soft suspension coils, undersized wheels, flimsy hardtops, utterly inadequate front and rear fenders, such broad, barge-like hoods as to give the driver minimum visibility in passing or parking, not to mention sun-reflecting chrome on windshield wipers and window frames to blind either the driver or an approaching car.

In the process of styling the motor car for flashy sales appeal, the designers not only increased the dangers but gratuitously cancelled out good features that earlier cars had had. By lowering its center of gravity, they made the car impossible to enter except by acrobatic maneuvers—this in an age that boasts more elderly people and more arthritic limbs than ever before. Likewise they reduced the six-person capacity that had been happily achieved by eliminating the running board, to a four-person size. To speak plainly, the present motor car has been the result of a secret collaboration between the beautician and the mortician; and according to sales and accident statistics both have reason to be satisfied.

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