David Ortman

Recall Ralph Nader

You're in your high performance car or four-wheel SUV going nowhere fast. As far as the eye can see, the freeway is one gigantic parking lot. You're sitting in what my kids use to call a "traffic jelly." And it doesn't look like its going to get any better any time soon.

Build more highways? If highways were the answer, Los Angeles would be paradise! Build more HOV lanes? As soon as you do, there is political pressure to take down the HOV signs.

Making cars smaller sure didn't help. Now for every road hog with fins on the road, there are two compact cars in their place.

The Modern Transit Society website lists a number of proposals for reducing traffic congestion including:

* Equalize the parking subsidy employees receive for parking for free.

* Raise the gas tax in a "revenue neutral" manner.

* Abolish all automobile subsidies (direct and indirect).

* Institute "Fare Lanes."

* Eliminate parking requirements in industrial areas (and ideally, everywhere). If necessary, implement parking permits for neighborhoods (already common in some cities).

* Implement traffic calming to create a more livable neighborhood and decrease automobile dependency. This will also decrease auto usage.

Any congestion still remaining will be eliminated by use of congestion pricing.

Vice President Al Gore has his own solution for "traffic jellies." On March 8, 1999, the White House released Gore's call for a new three-digit number to ease traffic congestion. Gore called on the Federal Communications Commission to adopt a new, national three-digit telephone number -- similar to 911 -- to allow Americans on the move access to on-the-spot transportation and traveler information, such as road conditions and bus schedules.

Just what we need. More drivers fumbling with their phones on the road.

No, none of these things are going to work. If you want to end traffic congestion, recall Ralph Nader.

Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed came out in 1966. It labeled the Chevrolet Corvair a deathtrap and is considered the catalyst for a wave of car safety concerns.

And he is at it again. On October 11, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader spoke to the Economic Club of Detroit. According to the Detroit Free Press, "Nader said automakers have worked to block legislation for years. He read from notes taken at a 1986 Ford policy meeting, during which executives said safety legislation was successfully stopped by a 'broad-based industry coalition led by Ford.'" (Click here to read TomPaine.com's coverage of the speech.)

And therein lies the problem. Every 14 seconds someone is injured in a traffic crash, and every 14 minutes someone is killed. And according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic crashes cost America more than $150 billion a year -- an average of $580 per person.

But even so, thanks mostly to Ralph Nader, your average traffic-congested single-occupancy driver is surrounded with seat belts, air bags, anti-lock brakes, collapsible steering columns, roll-over protection, and CD players, leather seats and cup holders to boot. As a result, drivers feel free to drink their coffee, put on their makeup, talk on the phone, laptop their computer and, in general, drive like idiots.

Drivers today are more concerned about road rage. They are more concerned about being shot by some berserk lane changer than in the consequences of tooling around in two tons of steel, plastic and flammable explosives.

We must drive a wedge between consumers and their love affair with the automobile. And the best way to do this is to recall Ralph Nader and allow the auto industry free reign to conduct themselves in a free market and produce even more unsafe cars.

Make driving a real life or death experience. Imagine getting into a car that has no seat belts, no air bags, no safety glass, no rearview mirrors, and a gas tank that may blow up at any time. If you felt the same shivers getting into your car that you do when you read a Stephen King novel, now that would really reduce traffic congestion!

Left to itself the auto industry would jettison auto safety in a heartbeat. Ford produced Pintos with their exploding gas tanks and GM pickups with side saddle gas tanks burned to death over 750 people.

In 1989, Chrysler produced 136,000 Dodge Dynasties with defective seatbelt and steering columns.

A California state judge just ordered the recall of Ford vehicles. From 1983 through 1995, Ford produced vehicles with defective ignition modules that may cause the vehicle to stall and die on the highway at any time. Failure at highway speeds can cause the driver to lose control or even result in a stalled vehicle being hit by a truck. Some models had failure rates as high as 90 percent. The judge ruled that Ford had concealed vital information about auto safety from the public.

Foreign car firms exhibit similar behavior. Mitsubishi Motors Corporation, with the full knowledge of workers, managers, and even one current board member, refused to report to authorities consumer complaints about auto defects, a practice dated back to 1977.

And let's not forget Firestone.

Given past history, it is clear that if regulatory oversight were removed the auto industry would retool and produce such an unsafe vehicle that people would think twice before turning the key and getting on the highway.

End traffic congestion, recall Ralph Nader.

David Ortman was formerly the director of the Northwest Office of Friends of the Earth. He is currently the director of the Northwest Corporate Accountability Project.