Today in 1934, consumer advocate, author, and political activist Ralph Nader was born in Winsted, Connecticut. The son of Lebanese immigrants who operated a popular restaurant in the moderately-sized Connecticut factory town, Nader displayed an insatiable appetite for reading and an incredible ability to retain information at an early age — traits that helped propel him through two tiers of Ivy League education with ease.
After graduating from Princeton in 1955 and from Harvard Law School in 1958, Nader embarked on a cross-country road trip that sparked a lifelong interest in road safety thanks to the number of crashes he observed on his journey. While practicing law in Hartford in the early 1960s, he began writing Unsafe at Any Speed, an exposé of the dangers posed to the American public by car manufacturers who, thanks to a lack of oversight, designed automobiles that were stylish and profitable but fundamentally unsafe. Published in 1965, Unsafe at Any Speed became a national best-seller and, thanks to continued activism on the part of Nader, spurred the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966, which gave the federal government more power to set and enforce national standards for road and vehicle safety.
Encouraged by his success in sparking national reforms for the car industry, Nader — now with a small army of volunteers eager to help him — turned his attention to a wide variety of political and industrial maladies he felt were in dire need of oversight or reform, from the Federal Trade Commission to the manufacture and use of pesticides to nuclear energy and virtually everything in between. Nader helped bring national attention to his pet issues through organizing protests, repeatedly testifying as an expert witness before Congress, and helping draft pieces of legislation for politicians sympathetic to his reform agenda. Nader played a major role in the creation and passage of some of the most consumer-friendly pieces of legislation in the 20th century, including the Clean Water Act, the Freedom of Information Act, and the Whistleblower Protection Act.
While his role in passing some of the United States’ most sweeping business and governmental reforms is undisputed, Ralph Nader himself is not a man without controversy. On four separate occasions, Nader threw his own hat into the political ring by running for President as an independent or third-party candidate, and while he never garnered more than 3% of the national vote, his campaigns always attracted plenty of national attention, and he is frequently credited — or blamed — for being a “spoiler” in the 2000 Presidential Election, when Democratic candidate Al Gore’s lost to Republican George W. Bush. Critics often complained that Nader’s tireless “anti-big-business” message has inspired people to tie up the U.S. legal system with frivolous lawsuits — a criticism that Nader certainly did not help to dispel by founding the American Museum of Tort Law in his hometown of Winsted, Connecticut in 2015. A tireless consumer advocate who has authored or co-authored over two dozen books and counting, Nader remains politically active — and a resident of Winsted — to this day.
Christopher Jensen, “50 Years Ago, ‘Unsafe At Any Speed’ Shook the Auto World,” New York Times