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Car Safety Wars

One Hundred Years of Technology, Politics, and Death

Michael R. Lemov

Car Safety Wars is a gripping history of the hundred-year struggle to improve the safety of American automobiles and save lives on the highways. Described as the “equivalent of war” by the Supreme Court, the battle involved the automobile industry, unsung and long-forgotten safety heroes, at least six US Presidents, a reluctant Congress, new auto technologies, and, most of all, the mindset of the American public: would they demand and be willing to pay for safer cars? The “Car Safety Wars” were at first won by consumers and safety advocates. The major victory was the enactment in 1966 of a ground breaking federal safety law. The safety act was pushed through Congress over the bitter objections of car manufacturers by a major scandal involving General Motors, its private detectives, Ralph Nader, and a gutty cigar-chomping old politician. The act is a success story for government safety regulation. It has cut highway death and injury rates by over seventy percent in the years since its enactment, saving more than two million lives and billions of taxpayer dollars.

But the car safety wars have never ended. GM has recently been charged with covering up deadly defects resulting in multiple ignition switch shut offs. Toyota has been fined for not reporting fatal unintended acceleration in many models. Honda and other companies have—for years—sold cars incorporating defective air bags. These current events, suggesting a failure of safety regulation, may serve to warn us that safety laws and agencies created with good intentions can be corrupted and strangled over time.

This book suggests ways to avoid this result, but shows that safer cars and highways are a hard road to travel. We are only part of the way home.
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University Press Copublishing Division / Fairleigh Dickinson University Press
Pages: 294Size: 6 x 9
978-1-61147-745-0 • Hardback • March 2015 • $85.00 • (£54.95)
978-1-61147-747-4 • Paperback • September 2015 • $44.99 • (£29.95)
978-1-61147-746-7 • eBook • March 2015 • $44.99 • (£29.95)
Michael R. Lemov served as general counsel of the National Commission on Product Safety and Chief Counsel of the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee of the House of Representatives Commerce Committee. He is also the author of Peoples Warrior: John Moss and the Fight for Freedom of Information and Consumer Rights (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011).
List of Illustrations
1. Love and Death on the Open Road
2. Voices in the Wilderness
3. Just a Congressman from a Small State
4. Safety Doesn’t Sell
5. General Motors Meets Ralph Nader
6. A Federal Law
7. Dr. Haddon, Detroit and the New Safety Agency
8. Dragon Lady
9. The Birth and Near Death of the Air Bag
10. Elizabeth Dole, State Farm and How America Got the Air Bag
11. Rough Road for Recalls: Ford Pinto Gas Tanks to GM Ignition Switches
12. Forcing Technology: Safety Standards in the New Century
Epilogue: A Hard Road to Travel


A. Summary of Major Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards
B. How to Buy a Safer Car: Sources, Web sites, Publications
List of Interviews
About the Author
We are quick to recognize and commemorate wars that took enormous amounts of human lives through acts of intentional violence from opposing sides. It is unfortunately quite rare to see the same public attention dedicated to campaigns where preserving human life was the only true objective. . . .Car Safety Wars is a comprehensive history of the movement for safer cars over the course of a century. Lemov knows his stuff. . . .Car Safety Wars is prime reading for anyone interested in automobiles and their development, the consumer safety movement, or the mechanisms of democratic government, or for those who are simply curious about the origins of the many auto safety features like seatbelts and airbags that now protect countless lives. . . .The 'car safety war' is certainly a war worth studying, reflecting on, and celebrating.
Huffington Post

[This book] educates and entertains with stories of pitched legislative and regulatory battles between corporate giants and public interest advocates. . . .Lemov is a dogged gumshoe in investigating and interviewing key players in some of the most significant auto safety battles in Congress and the executive branch. . . .His book preserves the chronicle of controversial and lifesaving auto safety battles and those who played a role, both large and small.
Public Citizen News

Michael Lemov has written a remarkable new history of the auto safety wars.
Corporate Crime Reporter

Car Safety Wars is an up to date book that discusses the recent GM ignition switch debacle. . . .Car Safety Wars is highly recommended for [those] . . . with an interest in car safety . . . Lemov’s book is an effective update of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed.
Mercedes-Benz Club of America

This meticulously researched book offers a . . . nuanced and thoughtful historical perspective. . . .What makes Car Safety Wars such a delightful read is Mike’s [Lemov] compelling story-telling. Rather than simply marching through a dry litany of statistics, he captures decade-by-decade the auto safety zeitgeist through a gripping narrative. . . .Lemov makes a compelling case for progressive government in the ongoing campaign to promote auto safety. . . .I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in how public policy evolves over time. . . .Reading the history of auto safety has given me a treasure trove of insight into my own agency. For that, I am extremely grateful to Mike [Lemov] and his fascinating book.
Product Safety Letter

Car Safety Wars is a well-researched and thoroughly documented story of an epic 100-year war to force an unwilling auto industry to incorporate life-saving equipment into its cars and trucks. . . .Car Safety Wars is recommended for anyone interested in gaining historical perspective on the issues surrounding auto design defect litigation. The references to primary sources in each chapter's end notes bolster the credibility of Lemov's assertions. Reading the book and learning about the role that lawyers have played in advancing automotive safety is inspirational.
Trial Magazine

Extraordinarily well written, organized and presented . . . [This book] is a seminal work of outstanding scholarship and expertise on a subject that has become a part of the automotive recall scandals national debate in corporate boardrooms and governmental investigative commissions. No community or academic library should be without Car Safety Wars: One Hundred Years of Technology, Politics, and Death for the benefit of academic and non-specialist general readers with an interest in the history of the automotive industry.
Midwest Book Review

A must-read for all who want to understand the history of motor vehicle safety and the complex roles played by legislators, regulators, safety advocates, and the automobile industry.
Michael Stanton, former CEO, Global Automakers, Washington D.C.

In Car Safety Wars Michael Lemov has done a masterful job of documenting the long and complicated evolution of a critically important public-health effort—the century-long campaign to make motor vehicles safer. As a first-hand participant in and observer of that effort, he brings special insights into its successes and failures. Car Safety Wars is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the history of auto safety in this country.
Ben Kelley, Board Member, Center for Auto Safety; former senior Vice President Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Lemov's Car Safety Wars is an insider's view of how people have influenced power and policies that make us all safer. Car Safety Wars empowers people to better protect themselves and their loved ones from crash deaths and serious injuries—and to help build a safer America.
Louis V. Lombardo, former research scientist, National Highway Safety Administration, and founder of careforcrashvictims.com

For a lot of reasons Mike Lemov is the right person to write about the tumultuous success story of car safety—counsel to the House committee that crafted the legislation, gifted writer, impressive historian. Record recalls serve as a reminder that auto safety is a continual challenge, and this notable work importantly calls that to attention.
Peter Harkness, Founding Publisher, Governing Magazine, and former Editor, Congressional Quarterly