The highly controversial Executive Director for the Center for Auto Safety, Clarence Ditlow, spent the last 40 years fighting to keep unsafe vehicles off the road, and helping car buyers fight back against big auto companies. But now, after a long battle with colon cancer, he has died at the age of 72.
Ditlow’s Center for Auto Safety was founded by Ralph Nader and Consumers Union to “provide consumers a voice for auto safety and quality in Washington and to help owners of ‘lemon’ vehicles fight back across the country.”
Under Ditlow’s leadership, the group accomplished astounding feats, helping drive the highest profile recalls in automotive history, such as the Toyota unintended acceleration recall (7 million vehicles), the GM ignition switch recall (11 million vehicles), the Firestone tire recall (15 million tires), the Takata airbag recall (60 million inflators), and even the Ford Pinto exploding gas tank recall (1.5 million vehicles).
By helping describe the cause of many of these recalls, often times before congressional committees, Ditlow saved “untold thousands of lives,” by forcing automakers to fix tens of millions of vehicles, the Center for Auto Safety said in a release.
On top of his work to keep cars safe, Ditlow helped create lemon laws in all 50 states, and pushed for the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act in 1975. He also helped bring about certain parts of the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency Standards, and even pioneered the call to require manufacturers to disclose all technical service bulletins to consumers.
The Center for Auto Safety quotes a statement from senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal:
A tireless champion for consumers, his work has resulted in better government oversight of automakers, the installation of key safety features, and the exposure of safety defects in millions of cars, SUVs and other trucks….Mr. Ditlow’s discovery of numerous automotive defects, combined with his persistent pressure on safety agencies and automakers alike, led to the removal of many unsafe vehicles from the road.
But despite his accomplishments, Ditlow was a highly controversial figure in the auto industry, often ruthlessly and aggressively pushing for recalls, regularly criticizing regulators and auto manufacturers.
One example was Ditlow’s push for Chrysler to recall old Jeep Grand Cherokees and Liberties because of their low-hanging fuel tanks, despite those fuel tanks having passed safety requirements at the time of their manufacture. Chrysler refused to recall the fuel tanks, but Ditlow was not pleased, sending a letter to Fiat Chrysler’s CEO Sergio Marchionne reading:
When will the killing end, when will 4-year olds stop being burned to death in Jeep Grand Cherokees?
And when Fiat Chrysler did finally recall the Jeeps, Ditlow didn’t think the fix was good enough, with the Detroit Free Press quoting his letter to NHTSA, which stated:
More people will die from fire in recalled Chrysler Jeeps because the recall remedy negotiated behind closed doors by Chrysler-Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, (former) DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and (former) NHTSA Administrator David Strickland is totally ineffective.
Ditlow was similarly displeased with the way the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and General Motors handled the latter’s ignition switch recall, scolding both parties, saying in a quote from the Detroit News:
[The] burden of proof on the individual consumer was always too high...The entire program was designed to get help get Congress and the Justice Department off GM’s back...The one thing is clear that we will never know how many people were killed or injured because it goes back so far.
In a more recent incident involving a recalled Jeep Grand Cherokee that rolled into and killed Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin, Ditlow wanted Fiat Chrysler to take drastic measures immediately, even before the investigation into what caused the death was complete, saying in a statement quoted by Automotive News: “Unfortunately the latest example of industry and government incompetence in the face of vehicle safety defects.”
He then sent a letter to Fiat Chrysler CEO Marchionne, telling him to apologize to Yelchins family, and to:
Notify owners not to drive these vehicles until they are repaired.
Provide free loaner cars to all owners until the vehicles are repaired.
For owners who cannot wait for the recall repair, buy the recalled vehicles back at original purchase or lease cost as is done under state lemon laws.
Provide a detailed public timeline within 10 days of what is being done to make a recall remedy available.
On top of that, in 2014, Ditlow and Ralph Nader penned an article for the New York Times called “Weak Oversight, Deadly Cars,” in which both authors berated the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the auto industry, exposing corruption and calling for a “complete overhaul of the agency’s culture” in order to fix the current system where “automakers... always place sales and profits over safety and innovation.”
Yes, Clarence Ditlow ruffled some feathers during his life as a champion for automotive safety, but in the end, brought about genuine change that will remain embedded in American car culture forever.