When organizations founded by Ralph Nader start defending huge corporations that deceive their customers, watch out. On the surface, the dispute over exploding gas tanks in General Motors pickups and dishonest reporting on Dateline NBC may look like two megacompanies scrambling to divert attention from their shoddy products.
But "consumer advocates" and media bashers are both pushing a broader agenda: tougher government control over automakers and the press, respectively. If this controversy shows anything, however, it's that we shouldn't expect government to keep trucks safe or journalism honest.
Safety advocates and plaintiffs' attorneys claim that 1973 to 1987 G.M. fullsize pickup trucks are "rolling firebombs" because their gas tanks are mounted between the frame and the exterior panels. The Nader-founded Center for Auto Safety wants the feds to force G.M. to recall these trucks, which could cost the company some $500 million.
In a Wall Street Journal column, litigation analyst Walter Olson compared the fatal-crash records of full-size G.M. pickups with those of other vehicles. He found that G.M. trucks were about 10-percent safer than the average passenger car, 50-percent safer than compact pickups, and almost identical in safety to their closest competitors, full-size Ford pickups.
In February, G.M. Iost a $105-million jury verdict in a case involving a fatal side crash. Yet the Georgia 17-year- old whose truck caught fire was hit by a drunk driving nearly 70 miles per hour. G.M. attorneys argued (to no avail) that the teenager probably died before any fire started.
No vehicle is perfectly safe, especially not in a collision like that one. In theory, any vehicle could be made safer—at a cost. But consumer advocates rarely recognize the trade-offs drivers make between safety, cost, performance, and convenience. Moreover, some of the regulations they've backed actually make cars less safe. For instance, raising Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards forces automakers to sell lighter vehicles that are less likely to survive a crash. And some engineers worry that mandated automatic seat belts, which don't fit as snugly as the lap/shoulder belts you buckle yourself, may result in more severe injuries. It seems the only cars the safety nannies would permit are Sherman tanks that get 45 miles per gallon.
NBC might as well have been the Nader Broadcasting Corporation on November 17. For its Dateline NBC segment on G.M. pickups, the network hired a trial lawyers' advocacy group to crash the trucks. Testers overfilled one truck's gas tank, used a nonstandard gas cap that popped off on impact, and strapped remote-controlled model-rocket engines to the truck's frame to guarantee a fire.
How did we learn this? Old-fashioned investigative reporting—the free press in action. Pete Pesterre, editor of Popular Hot Rodding, got a tip from a reader that the tests were rigged. Pesterre tracked down the firefighters who witnessed the tests, contacted G.M. attorneys, and helped the company piece together the deception NBC had foisted upon its viewers.
NBC had to eat a plateful of crow when it publicly admitted it rigged the crashes. But some critics say NBC's confession isn't sufficient. The Washington Times editorial page called for an unspecified investigation of NBC News, perhaps by congressional inquisitor Rep. John Dingell (D–Mich.). Such a witch hunt would only invigorate media bashers on the right and the left who want to stifle the press. Advocates of the nanny state should recognize that hyperactive regulation guarantees neither safety nor honesty, only mischief.