from New Yorker June 11, 2001. "Wrong Turn" by Malcolm Gladwell, page 50


In the middle part of the last century, a man named William Haddon changed forever the way Americans think about car accidents. Haddon was, by training, a medical doctor and an epidemiologist and, by temperament, a New Englander-tall and reed-thin, with a crewcut, a starched white shirt, and a bow tie. He was exacting and cerebral, and so sensitive to criticism that it was said of him that he could be "blistered by moonbeams." He would not eat mayonnaise, or anything else subject to bacterial contamination. He hated lawyers, which was ironic, because it was lawyers who became his biggest disciples. Haddon was discovered by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, when Moynihan was working for Avereit Harriman, then the Democratic governor of New York State. It was 1958. Moynihan was chairing a meeting on traffic safety, in Albany's old stateexecutive-office chambers, and a young man at the back of the room kept asking pointed questions. "What's your name?" Moynihan eventually asked, certain he had collared a Republican spy. "Haddon, sir," the young man answered. He was just out of the Harvard School of Public Health, and convinced that what the ,field of traffic safety needed was the rigor of epidemiology. Haddon asked Moynihan what data he was using. Moynihan shrugged. He wasn't using any data at all.

Haddon and Moynihan went across the street to Yezzi's, a local watering hole, and Moynihan fell under Haddon's spell. The orthodoxy of that time held that was about safety reducing accidents-educating drivers, training them, making them slow down. To Haddon, this approach made no sense. His goal was to reduce the injuries that accidents caused. In particular, he did not believe in safety measures that depended on changing the behavior of the driver, since he considered the driver unreliable, hard to educate, and prone to error. Haddon believed the best safety measures were passive. "He was a gentle man," Moynihan recalls. "Quiet, without being mum. He never forgot that what we were talking about were children with their heads smashed and broken bodies and dead people." Several years later, Moynihan was working for President Johnson in the Department of labor,and hired a young lawyer out of Harvard named Ralph Nader to work on traffic-safety issues. Nader, too, was a devotee of Haddon's ideas, and he converted a young congressional aide named Joan Claybrook. In 1959, Moynihan wrote an enormously influential article, articulating Haddon's principles, called "Epidemic on the Highways." In 1965, Nader wrote his own homage to the Haddon philosophy, "Unsafe at Any Speed," which became a best-seller, and in 1966 the Haddon crusade swept Washington. In the House and the Senate, there were packed hearings on legislation to create a federal regulatory agency for traffic safety. Moynihan and Haddon testified, as did a liability lawyer from South Carolina, in white shoes and a white suit, and a Teamsters official, Jimmy Hoffa, whom Claybrook remembers as a "fabulous" witness. It used to be that, during a frontal crash, steering columns in cars were pushed back through the passenger compartment, potentially impaling the driver. The advocates argued that columns should collapse inward on impact. Instrument panels ought to be padded, they said, and knobs shouldn't stick out, where they might cause injury. Doors ought to have strengthened side-impact beams. Roofs should be strong enough to withstand a rollover. Seats should have head restraints to protect against neck injuries. Windshields ought to be glazed, so that if you hit them with your head at high speed your face wasn't cut to ribbons. The bill sailed through both houses of Congress, and a regulatory body, which eventually became the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was established. Haddon was made its commissioner, Claybrook his special assistant. "I remember a Senate hearing we had with Warren Magnuson," Nader recalls. "He was listening to a pediatrician who was one of our allies, Seymour Charles, from New Jersey, and Charles was showing how there were two cars that collided, and one had a collapsible steering column and one didn't, and one driver walked away, the other was killed. And,just like that, Magnuson caught on. 'You mean,' he said, 'YOU can have had a crash without an injury.'That's it! A crash without an injury. That idea was very powerful." There is no question that the improvements in auto design which Haddon and his disciples pushed for saved countless lives. They changed the way cars were built, and put safety on the national agenda.