Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Has Ralph Nader Saved Your Life Today?

I mean the title literally. It's sad how little most people know about the impact Ralph Nader's work has had on all of our lives. So, I thought I'd post this piece that was on the website back in 2004. It gives examples of just some of the ways Ralph Nader has improved the quality of each of our lives.

Maybe you have a story about how Ralph Nader's work has saved your life or that of a loved one? Whether it's a friend whose life was saved by a seatbelt or you just realized that you're lucky you haven't died of water poisoning, I'd love to hear about it.


Another late night of unpaid overtime at work. You roll in after midnight, and bolt down cold leftovers. Against your better judgment, you flip on late night TV. Another political pundit on the upcoming elections…you almost turn it off, but then suddenly, he says something interesting.

"The pollsters ask us questions like, 'Which guy would you rather have a beer with?' But, what if they asked us something different…. Imagine if we chose our President based on how his career actions have impacted us, something that could be tracked down, quantified and analyzed. A sort of index of how each candidate's influence reaches into our lives on a daily basis. "

The host responds that, with that provocative idea, the interview is over. You stare blankly through a fast-talking car dealer and an ad for the most adjustable mattress ever made before snapping the set off.

Impact on my daily life—how 'bout that.

A few hours later the alarm insistently pulls you from the depths of sweet dreams. Your eyes open and you think about everything you've got to do before flying out of town in the afternoon. Shuffling down the hall to the kitchen, your thirst awakens. You fill a glass with water from the tap and sip it, bracing your free arm on the edge of the sink. Once again, you think of the pundit's suggestion and shrug. But Ralph Nader has already shaped this day of yours in a tiny, yet important way, the first of many ways his work of forty years touches your life every day. As the nation's top public citizen, Nader was one of the main driving forces in 1974 behind passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which mandates that local utilities protect the water you drink.1

Now with coffee cup in hand, you retrieve the newspaper. Below the fold, a headline reads, "Federal Government Covered Up More Radiation Poisoning." Another story of cancer in the southwest resulting from nuclear testing upwind of a community. Government officials apparently had decided that St. George, Utah was "expendable." You sit down slowly while reading, passing over some lines twice. How did the reporter uncover this stunning betrayal of citizens? This is an impressively researched article. The information really flows forth—the bare facts condemning trusted officials.2

You are troubled by the article, but shake that feeling off as the day's tasks begin to weigh on your mind. That pasta last night wasn't allowed by your new diet, but, hey, the book says that flexibility is important. Anyway, you've a taste for steak and eggs this morning, what with so many late nights beginning to catch up to you. Freeing the steak of its packaging and familiar labels, the satisfying sizzle and smell soon fill the air.3

Still chewing your breakfast, it's the usual rush back and forth for items forgotten—the cell phone, the extra key, the bill to be mailed—in your rush to the door. You climb into your new car, turn your head sharply and begin to back out of the driveway. The automobile handles well and you feel perfectly comfortable inside its friendly interior. Glancing at the fuel gauge, you are relieved to see that you have plenty of gas. It seems like days since you went to the pump. Though many of your neighbors drive gas-guzzling SUVs, your car is fuel-efficient, even though it is not a late model hybrid. 4

First stop is the bank. You hate these nuisance errands. In this case you have to correct an incorrect bill. After checking your watch repeatedly as the long line inched towards the lone teller (you figure the bank has a strange strategy of making their customers so frustrated that they use the web instead), at least the teller resolves the mistake with little effort. 5 Now to catch that plane.

You arrive at the airport only to be informed that your flight has been overbooked and that some passengers will surely have to take the next flight. The airlines ask for volunteers to take the next flight, offering them compensation in the form of a free ticket, and more than enough step forward. Thanks for that—you couldn't afford to miss this flight. 6 You step onto the airplane and find your seat. A woman sits in your row with her four year-old boy who starts to tap on the old cigarette tray next to your left elbow. At least the tray is now welded shut and the plane isn't filled with the haze of smoke spreading from the "smoking section." 7 Now the boy begins extracting his toys and parading them in wide arcs. Not much to really worry about. 8 Boys that age…You turn to the window.

Looking out, you see a big meandering river below. Surface water quality has come a long ways in the 35 years since the Cuyahoga River caught fire just southeast of Cleveland, OH. But further improvements in water quality seem long overdue. 9 Even the current EPA has reported widespread mercury contamination. Sure seems that Congress should act again. Don't hold your breath. There ahead are those cooling towers, two squat, flared concrete cylinders. You feel relieved that that nuclear power plant was shut down finally. Ever since the accident at Three-Mile Island, it made you nervous. The power wasn't cheap, either—especially considering taxpayer subsidies. 10

Craning your neck has made it stiff, so you recline and close your eyes. It's been a few months since you've seen your dad and you feel lucky that his accident wasn't as serious as it might have been. He was working for a McWane-owned cast iron pipe plant in Texas. In the hospital, one of his fellow workers told you that nine workers have been killed in McWane plants since 1995, according to OSHA inspectors. He said that several of those deaths were due to the company's deliberate violations of federal safety standards. 11 At least Dad didn't follow his father into the coal mines. Your cousin tells you that 80 miners die from fatal work injuries every year—though that hasn't stopped him from supporting his family underground. Yeah, it's a huge relief that the stressful time in the hospital is over.

But you worry about your mother. Last week she started taking some arthritis medicine, and if your sister, who is a doctor, hadn't checked up on the drug, Mom might have suffered some real harm. 12 You are pleased, though, reflecting on her happiness at work. That seems to keep her energetic and occupied. The rural food co-op she started with friends in the late 1970s brings together a great community of people for miles. It's become a real social hub. 13 Now the flight attendant's voice comes on announcing the descent.

After the slow, rocking walk out of the plane speeding up to a good clip through the terminal, the kids are running towards you with huge smiles on their faces. Their grandparents follow behind. You feel elated to see them all. Twilight settles around you as you walk to the waiting car and a sense of endless possibilities14 swells within you as you steer towards home.


  1. On all of the issues mentioned here, Ralph Nader was the main individual driving change. But many other people too numerous to chronicle fully here were crucial to these efforts. Nader assembled his first team of crusading students in 1968. The next year around 30,000 young people applied for 200 spots working as "Nader's Raiders" during summers. They did vast research and, in many cases, were deep into writing the legislation in question. In this case, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 mandated that the EPA (also a major Nader effort in 1970) protect the nation's drinking water by setting minimal standards for contaminants thought to be toxic. The Act was amended in 1986 and has helped reduce lead in drinking water, among other chemicals. But it could be far more effective than it is. In 1974, Nader and associates helped draft the bill and beat back the lobby of the cities that fought it. Nader sat in the audience and testified at hearings on the bill.
  2. In 1966, after years of leadership on the issue, Congressman John Moss pushed the first Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) through the House. Every serious journalist in America now relies on FOIA requests in order to investigate issues somehow related to the federal government. In other words, a great many issues. All kinds of groups working for justice in the United States also rely on FOIA requests to obtain crucial information. In 1974, Ralph Nader and his Raiders were largely responsible for getting Congress to enormously broaden and strengthen Moss's Act and for testifying and pushing the Act through over President Ford's veto.
  3. In 1966, Nader and his associates worked to pass the Meat and Poultry Inspection Act, which mandated more federal meat inspections, stipulated penalties for violations, and generally gave the federal government more power to safeguard the nation's meat and poultry supply. Nader says that they tried to include fish, but, unfortunately, the fish processors lobby won out. Almost three decades later, implementation of meat inspection laws was severely weakened by the Clinton Administration.
  4. Perhaps Ralph Nader's single largest and most lasting legacy has been his impact on the safety of automobiles in the U.S. and around the world—as a result of U.S. federal standards. Nader, motivated by witnessing auto crashes while hitchhiking as a student and observing accidents suffered by friends, wrote one of the classic exposes of the 20th century: Unsafe At Any Speed. His research led to hearings and legislation establishing the National Highway Safety and Traffic Administration in 1966. Nader's efforts also led to the design and implementation of collapsable steering columns (that no longer impaled drivers) and seatbelts. Since then, he helped pass tire safety legislation. In 1984, after many years trying to make the installation of airbags mandatory, Nader worked directly with the former director of the General Services Administration during Reagan's first term, Gerald Carmen, and convinced him to put out an order for 5,000 airbag-equipped cars for bid. Ford Motor Company took the order and the rest is history. Since Nader almost single-handedly brought about these changes in auto safety, over 1 million lives have been saved and tens of millions of injuries have been spared in the U.S. alone. Nader also actively pushed for fuel efficiency standards. In 1975, Congress set the "Corporate Average Fuel Economy" or "CAFE" standard at 27.5 miles per gallon for new passenger cars and 20.7 miles per gallon for light trucks -- new pickups, minivans and SUVs.
  5. "In the late 1960s and 1970s, Nader, his banking expert, Jonathan Brown, the Consumer Federation of America and others challenged these basic injustices and pushed Congress to enact a number of reforms. These included:
    • the Truth in Lending Act of 1968, which required all banks to quote the annual percentage rate to any consumers seeking loans;
    • the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970, which gives consumers the right to know what is in their credit files;
    • the Fair Credit Billing Act of 1974, which mandates procedures for consumers to challenge incorrect billings; and
    • the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 (and amended in 1976), which requires banks to extend credit purely on the basis of an applicant's ability to repay, not on any other extraneous factors. (Not until June 1977 were most married women legally entitled to establish their own credit histories.)
    Until the consumer movement agitated for change, banks and the industry's regulatory institutions (Office of Comptroller of the Currency, Federal Reserve Board, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, among others) did not seriously consider consumer interests in their policymaking. By the mid-1970s, however, they had at least begun to monitor unfair and deceptive banking practices and to generate more banking data of interest to consumers (such as loan application data necessary to detect discriminatory lending policies)." Nader and Brown continue to work on racist "redlining" bank loan policies.
    Source: CITIZEN ACTION AND OTHER BIG IDEAS, A History of Ralph Nader and the Modern Consumer Movement by David Bollier
  6. "One of [his] most celebrated fights occurred in 1972, one year after its founding, when Ralph Nader was bumped from a flight despite having a confirmed reservation. En route to a speech in Hartford, Connecticut, he was forced to fly instead to Boston and drive to Hartford. Nader…sued the airlines for fraudulent misrepresentation (the airline had not honored its promise of a confirmed seat), and won the legal issue of deception while losing their claim for monetary damages. The case triggered an outpouring of public outrage against the airlines, however, and sent the Civil Aviation Board scurrying to issue regulations that would protect consumers from the "last-at-the-gate, first-bumped" rule. Now, largely as a result of Nader's action, the airlines hold an "auction" among passengers to select volunteers to take the next flight out. Any passenger who is bumped, voluntarily or involuntarily, receives a cash benefit or free ticket as a reward."
    Source: CITIZEN ACTION AND OTHER BIG IDEAS, A History of Ralph Nader and the Modern Consumer Movement by David Bollier
  7. Nader also logged a major effort to ban smoking on commercial aircraft and other means of mass transportation with law professor John Banzhaf. In 1989, all smoking on flights within the U.S. was banned. Nader tells the story of one of the last flights on which smoking occurred. He got on the flight late and got stuck next to a smoker who, recognizing Nader, diabolically blew smoke towards him for the duration of the flight.
  8. Over 30 years ago, Ralph Nader was instrumental in passing legislation creating the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. "The CPSC is charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of serious injury or death from more than 15,000 types of consumer products under the agency's jurisdiction. Deaths, injuries and property damage from consumer product incidents cost the nation more than $700 billion annually. The CPSC is committed to protecting consumers and families from products that pose a fire, electrical, chemical, or mechanical hazard or can injure children. The CPSC's work to ensure the safety of consumer products - such as toys, cribs, power tools, cigarette lighters, and household chemicals - contributed significantly to the 30 percent decline in the rate of deaths and injuries associated with consumer products over the past 30 years."
    Source: CPSC website.
  9. On Oct. 18, 1972, Congress overrode a veto by President Nixon of amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. The Clean Water Act, as the amendments were called, meant to maintain ''fishable, drinkable and swimmable'' waters, required industries and cities to clean up their sewage, and led to the establishment of an extensive water treatment program. The law protected the nation's wetlands and paved the way for broad regulations requiring a cleanup of the nation's rivers, lakes and coasts. Nader and his Raiders, especially David Zwick, were very involved in drafting the legislation. George W. Bush has signed legislation gutting key portions of the Act governing the filling of streams and wetlands.
  10. Ralph Nader became very active in the early 1970s in opposing nuclear power plants because of the massive risks they posed to the public's safety, among other issues. In 1974, Nader and his associates' huge Critical Mass activist training event drew thousands of people who went out into the country to campaign against nuclear power. Orginally, 1000 nuclear power plants had been planned for the U.S. Only about 125 were built, in large part because of the opposition stemming from Critical Mass and other events. The remaining plants continue to be shut down.
  11. "The official drive for better workplace protection began in January 1968 when President Johnson proposed a comprehensive occupational health and safety program. Much of the impetus for fulfilling this vision came from a tragic coal mine explosion in November 1968 that took 68 lives in Farmington, West Virginia. Nader, who had played a role in helping miners win compensation for black lung disease and better safety standards, seized the moment to help push through the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. The law helped fuel the movement for more sweeping workplace reforms, led by Nader, Congressman Philip Burton and other key legislators, and the steelworkers union and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union (but little support from the AFL-CIO). One influential document in the debate over the proposed new agency, the OSHA, was the Nader-sponsored report, Bitter Wages, by Joseph Page, a former Harvard Law classmate of Nader's and now a law professor at Georgetown Law Center. Like so many other Nader reports of that time, Page's book provided a concise history of corporate abuse, legal analysis, compelling anecdotes and a readable style. When the Occupational Safety and Health Act was finally enacted in 1970, over 14,000 workers were being killed and over two million disabled from industrial accidents each year."
    Source: CITIZEN ACTION AND OTHER BIG IDEAS, A History of Ralph Nader and the Modern Consumer Movement, by David Bollier
  12. With Dr. Sidney Wolfe, M.D., Ralph Nader began the Health Research Group to investigate the safety and efficacy of medicines. The HRG (part of Public Citizen) has caused numerous dangerous and often times fatal drugs to be recalled. In addition, The HRG publishes a reference volume carefully documenting both the dangers associated with many drugs, as well as the false claims made about them. Coming from the HRG, warnings about Reyes Syndrome (caused by giving children aspirin when they have viral respiratory infections) have greatly reduced the incidence of this serious medical problem.
  13. Nader and a coalition pushed legislation creating the National Cooperative Bank to a one vote victory in the House of Representatives in 1978. President Carter then signed the bill. The federally-chartered bank had $300 in seed money and made loans to new and existing housing, food, farm, and other co-ops. Though Ronald Reagan tried to destroy the bank, he only succeeded in semi-privatizing it. A good many co-ops would never have gotten off of the ground without the original institution.
  14. You get the point. Ralph Nader continues working to protect your right to have your day in court, your right to derive benefits from assets owned by you, the taxpayer, to help make drugs more affordable, to help fight the spread of infectious diseases, to help give you more rights when you sign canned contracts and many other issues. Now, consider how Nader's greatest legacy affects you: the thousands of people inspired by him to pursue justice for all. Yes, one person can make a difference. But rare are those who show us the dizzying heights that the impact of one remarkable individual can reach. One of Nader's favorite sayings is apt here: "There is no functional role for pessimism."*
*, accessed 9/15/2006