The Loss of a Consumer Champion

In Memoriam: Clarence Ditlow

Clarence Ditlow

Clarence Ditlow (Getty Images)

The long-time head of the Center for Auto Safety died last week at the age of 72. His passing triggered an outpouring of tributes from colleagues, friends and others, including these:

Ben Kelley, board member of the Center for Auto Safety:
There are very few activists who deserve the appellation “sui generis,” meaning “one of a kind, unique.” Clarence Ditlow, who died on November 10 in Washington after a months-long battle with cancer, was just such an activist.

For more than 40 years Ditlow headed the Center for Auto Safety where, for long hours and on a tiny budget, he worked unremittingly to prod car companies and safety regulators into placing the highest priority on keeping vehicles free of deadly hazards. As a member of the Center’s board of directors, I was privileged to know and work with Ditlow in achieving the Center’s crucially important consumer-protection mission.

Clarence Ditlow was personally self-effacing yet professionally unremitting in his dedication to the cause of protecting consumers from unsafe vehicles. Nor did he flinch from publicly calling out safety regulators for their cozy relations with the industry and their failure to establish and enforce tough auto safety standards, operate transparently, and put the public’s health above industry profits.

A few months before his death, in a USA Today commentary, Ditlow sharply criticized the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for its failure to develop binding safety standards for driverless vehicles. “In its zeal to advance driverless vehicles,” he wrote, “NHTSA has forgotten its mission is to ensure safety, not promote gee-whiz vehicle technology to increase sales.“

Ensuring the safety of self-drive cars was just the most recent of Ditlow’s concerns. Announcing his death, the center noted that these included safety recalls of tens of millions of vehicles that saved untold thousands of lives, and passage of lemon laws in all 50 states.

On September 29, as his illness worsened, Ditlow was singled out for special praise in a Congressional Record statement by Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “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,” it noted.

Clarence Ditlow is survived by his wife, Marilyn Herman, his beloved long-time companion. They were married in a bedside ceremony at George Washington Hospital a few weeks before his death. He is also survived by countless motorists who, through his efforts on behalf of auto safety, are alive today.

Ralph Nader:
America’s motorists are less safe today with the passing of their Guardian Angel—engineer/lawyer Clarence Ditlow, the director of the Center for Auto Safety. The generating force behind the recalls of millions of defective motor vehicles, Mr. Ditlow pressured the federal auto safety agency and the auto companies with meticulous advocacy that was technically deep and morally powerful…

While culpable auto executives were on the golf links, he was at his office on weekends assembling evidence about the causes of crashes and their human casualties, and preparing formal petitions and lawsuits demanding action…

Over the years he was the “go-to” person for hundreds of reporters, columnists, editorial writers, researchers and legislative staff. Patiently, he would walk them through the details of motor vehicle failures and engineering deficiencies, the derelictions of management and the inaction of government regulators not doing their job. He took his work beyond auto safety to include fuel efficiencies, emitted pollutants, and sloppy vehicle construction and design…

Self-effacing and ethical, he did not ask anything for himself, receiving a very modest salary, living a simple and courageous life, as his wife, Marilyn Herman, recounted in his final days.

Jack Gillis, director of public affairs, Consumer Federation of America:
For over four decades, Clarence fought tirelessly to stem the terrible toll that automobiles take on American society. In addition, he was one of the first to understand the impact of the automobile on the environment. Clarence was likely responsible for saving more lives than anyone else in the auto safety community…This is a tragic blow to public safety at a time when consumer protections are at such great risk…

Clarence was a formidable individual. I did share something in common with the car companies…at times he would drive us both crazy. But I truly loved him. Clarence challenged his colleagues the same way he challenged the government and car companies. If you weren’t on the right path, Clarence let you know, no matter who you were….Clarence’s admonition to me, and many others, followed the advice of Spike Lee—do the right thing. And that was Clarence’s mantra, doing the right thing no matter how hard it was.’’

Jackie Gillan, president, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety:
Every motorist on the road today has Clarence to thank for their vehicle being equipped with lifesaving safety systems. And, when a safety system or auto part was defective, it was Clarence who identified the problem, informed the public, prodded regulators to act and held the auto industry accountable. He was an unyielding and resolute activist whenever public safety was marginalized or monetized by the industry…

On a personal level, I met Clarence when working at the U.S. Department of Transportation during the Carter Adminnistration on auto safety. He was a lifelong friend to consumers, to safety advocates, to victims and to me.”

Sally Greenberg, executive director, the National Consumers League:
Clarence Ditlow’s name is synonymous with auto safety…His research and advocacy exposing auto defects – including ignition switches, roof crush, and sudden acceleration–were invaluable and helped to vastly improve the safety and reliability of today’s vehicles. Consumers owe him a debt of gratitude for continuously keeping industry’s feet to the fire and demanding that automakers deliver far safer and more fuel efficient vehicles…Since 1970, the death rate on America’s roads has dropped dramatically…The remarkable progress we’ve seen in reduced deaths and injuries since the Center was founded is testament to Clarence’s work.”

Mark Rosekind, Administrator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:
Clarence dedicated his life’s work to improving the safety of all those who drive or ride in motor vehiles. Clarene was relentless in his pursuits, and whether he was taking the fight to the auto industry, or prodding NHTSA when he felt we weren’t moving fast enough, no one could ever doubt his heartfelt motivation. Americans are driving in cars that are safer thanks to Clarence, and his voice as an advocate for safety won’t easily be replaced.’’

Jeff Plungis, lead investigative journalist, Consumer Reports:
Clarence M. Ditlow, III, one of the most influential and effective consumer activists of the past five decades,…leaves behind an astonishing legacy of work on safety defects that led to the eventual recall of tens of millions of vehicles. He was at the center of every major automotive safety controversy dating back to the exploding gas tanks of the Ford Pinto during the disco era, and as recently as this summer remained a strong voice for how to regulate autonomous technology in vehicles.”

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6 comments to “The Loss of a Consumer Champion”

  1. Kelly DuPlessis

    Sad to hear of the passing of Clarence. I will miss working with him on Automobile Design Liability. He put his all in this publication.

  2. Azaima Anderson

    Sad news. I interned for Clarence Ditlow and Carl Nash when I was a senior in high school. Clarence was generous with his knowledge, and set the bar high for hard, effective work.

  3. Byron Bloch

    I’ve known Clarence for many decades, and have admired how he always stood up so persistently to fight for tougher auto safety standards, for the recalls of vehicles with safety defects, and to bring it all to the attention of NHTSA, to the at-risk public, and to Congress and the media.

    One early example was on April 17th, 1973, at the U.S. Congressional Hearing on Amendments to the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. The Chairman was Congressman John Moss of California. Ralph Nader was accompanied by Clarence and Carl Nash and me at the Hearings. Ralph introduced us and we all testified. We also had a late-night meeting with Clarence and other young crusaders at the National Press Building, to discuss safety issues with bad fuel tanks ala the Ford Pinto, and weak seats ala the Volkswagen Beetle. We were young and spirited. I was 35, and Clarence was 29.

    And then last year, on July 2nd of 2015, we both testified at the NHTSA Hearing on Chrysler Defects and Recalls. It was 42 long but quick years after that 1973 Hearing, and we were both still waging the good fight as always! And Clarence was terrific!

    The fight for safer vehicles has gone on and on and on for decades. With Clarence at the helm, the Center for Auto Safety has become a legendary tiger-like force that’s respected by NHTSA, by Congress, by the courts, by trial lawyers, and by the media. Clarence clearly is the Center for Auto Safety. From time to time over these many years, Clarence and I have had some very good chats about what the issues are, and how to fight for public justice and safer cars.

    While a tough advocate, Clarence was also fun and compassionate and generous. At one time, he asked me to come over and pick up some extra documents, as he was trying to weed down the bulging files at the Center for Auto Safety. To make some room for endless documents yet to follow, of course!

    I still find it hard to grasp that this courageous fighter has lost this battle with cancer.

    Byron Bloch

  4. Richard Zitrin

    Clarence Ditlow, THE conscience of the auto industry, was the most public-spirited consumer advocate I have ever known. On a always-meager budget, without any regard for personal reward, Clarence selflessly fought for vehicle safety his entire professional life. He was also the largest repository of information about where the bodies were buried, often literally in the auto industry and at NHTSA.

    He was my dear friend as well as my comrade in arms, and I will miss him terribly.

  5. Carol Pollack-Nelson

    My intro to product safety came under the leadership of Clarence at the Center for Auto Safety in the 1980s. His dedication to consumer safety was unparalleled and served as an example to me throughout my career. American consumers owe Clarence a debt of thanks for his tireless fight to ensure that vehicles – on which we are so dependent – are safe to drive, and if they are not, that they are removed from the market. My heartfelt condolences to Marilyn.

  6. Louis V. Lombardo

    Thank you for this excellent tribute to a great humanitarian.

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