This is already shaping up to be a record-breaking year for automobile recalls. In the first third of 2014, car companies have admitted to serious safety concerns affecting as many as 11 million vehicles that rolled off their assembly lines.

The defects have included accelerator pedals that may malfunction; power steering that may fail; and ignition switches that could slip out of the “run” position.

Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate who sparked a revolution in the auto industry almost five decades ago, has lost none of his anger about companies that put “cost culture” ahead of “safety culture.”

The Sunday Edition

On CBC radio's The Sunday Edition on April 20, 2014, starting at 9 a.m.:

  • Michael Enright on hockey violence.
  • The moderator of the United Church of Canada Gary Paterson brings us a poem by E. E. Cummings.
  • Maryam Sahar Naqibullah was a translator for Canadian Forces in Afghanistan; now she's at Carleton University.
  • The urban myth of Kitty Genovese.
  • Tributes to Jesse Winchester and Sue Townsend.

"If you dig deep into the bureaucracy of General Motors, you will see that, the last time I checked, there were 18 levels from the factory floor to the CEO,” he said in an interview with Michael Enright on The Sunday Edition.

"That’s 18 levels of potential passing the buck, evasion, covering up, minimizing, et cetera," he said.

"The incentive at each one of these levels is to keep costs down. You get promoted at companies like General Motors by shaving a few cents off a tire. You get promoted by controlling costs. You don’t get promoted by controlling what they consider to be hypothetical casualties.”

Nader was commenting on the testimony given earlier this month by Mary Barra, the newly appointed CEO of General Motors. Barra told a Congressional subcommittee she had no knowledge of an ignition flaw in the Chevrolet Cobalt that has been linked to the deaths of at least 13 people, a defect that would have cost about 57 cents per vehicle to repair.

No incentive to report problems

Nader’s ground-breaking 1965 polemic, Unsafe at Any Speed, exposed the fact that car makers were happy to spend money on vehicle aesthetics but reluctant to invest in features that would make cars safer, both for drivers and pedestrians.

Thanks to Nader, cars are much safer now – with seat belts, emission controls, improved brakes, tires and crash-worthiness – but their electronics also make them more complex, leading to a greater potential for defects.

'I’ve suggested to Mary Barra and GM that they institute an independent ombudsman inside GM that reports directly to the CEO, that is under no control of the rest of the hierarchy, to which engineers and inspectors can bring their concerns, and immediately report defects so they can be corrected.'- Ralph Nader

Nader says engineers and inspectors on the shop floor have no incentive to report problems that may stop an assembly line.

“That’s why I’ve suggested to Mary Barra and GM that they institute an independent ombudsman inside GM that reports directly to the CEO, that is under no control of the rest of the hierarchy, to which engineers and inspectors can bring their concerns, and immediately report defects so they can be corrected,” said Nader.

One of the outcomes of Unsafe at Any Speed was that it prompted the U.S. Congress to pass the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which established the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Decades later, Nader says regulatory agencies in the government have lost much of their effectiveness due to a phenomenon called “regulatory capture.”

“Gradually the corporate lobbyists for the auto industry just swarm around these agencies, they go there every day, they threaten lawsuits... and after a number of years, these agencies give up,” Nader said.

GM Barra

General Motors CEO Mary Barra gave assurances to U.S. lawmakers that GM cars affected by recalls for defective Ignition switches, mainly Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions, are safe to use while owners wait for the replacement part. (Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)

“They’re harassed by Congress, their budgets are cut and their leadership is compromised by design," he said. “As the years pass, the corporate lobbyists for the auto companies have their hooks deeper into key members of Congress, who keep budgets down.”

Nader points out that a growing number of officials, engineers and lawyers from the auto safety agency are leaving government and working for the auto companies.

Despite the weakening of the regulators, Nader said the recent grilling of General Motors may lead to positive change.

“We’re dealing here with a company that’s been shaken from its new CEO Mary Barra all the way down to the shop floors, and the reverberations are going to all companies, like Toyota and VW [Volkswagen], all over the world,” said Nader.

“So they’re going to have every incentive now – because of possible jail time – to straighten out their quality control and to develop a different kind of cost benefit between how many dollars they save on the one hand and how many lives they cost on the other.”

Nader is lobbying the U.S. Congress and President Obama to strengthen auto safety laws and expand the budgets of government regulators, “so out of this may come a stronger regulatory agency, more independent and more willing to put the federal cop on the auto-defect beat.”

[Listen to the full interview with Ralph Nader in the audio player at the top-left of this page, or on CBC radio's The Sunday Edition starting at 9 a.m. April 20.]