November 10th saw the passing of Clarence M. Ditlow, III, since 1976 the Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety. For four decades Mr. Ditlow’s persistent pressure on safety agencies and automakers forced improvements in the auto industry in safety, reliability, and fuel efficiency. His accomplishments included millions of safety recalls and lemon laws in 50 states.
The Center for Auto Safety was founded in 1970 by Ralph Nader and Consumers Union to provide consumers a voice for auto safety and quality in Washington, to help owners of defective vehicles fight back. The installation of air bags was a key goal at one of the first staff meetings, eventually becoming standard in all vehicles. Since the Center was founded, the death rate on America’s roads has dropped dramatically, from 5.2 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1969 to 1.1 per 100 million vehicle miles in 2010.
Under Mr. Ditlow’s direction, the Center played a major role in the following recalls:
- 6.7 million Chevrolets for defective engine mounts
- 15 million Firestone 500 tires
- 1.5 million Ford Pintos for exploding gas tanks
- 3 million Evenflo child seats for defective latches
In the past seven years, the Center was the primary force behind the recalls of:
- 7 million Toyotas for sudden acceleration
- 2 million Jeeps for fuel tank fires
- 11 million GM vehicles for defective ignition switches
- 60 million faulty Takata airbag inflators
Mr. Ditlow, with other representatives of the Center, testified 50 times before congressional committees regarding auto safety, warranties and service bulletins, air pollution, consumer protection, and fuel economy.
Under Mr. Ditlow, the Center for Auto Safety became the leading consumer advocate for passage of:
- The 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act
- The fuel economy provisions of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (which established the first Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency CAFÉ standards)
- The disclosure to consumers of automotive technical service bulletins which auto companies send to dealers alerting them to hazardous conditions in their cars
The Center’s current projects include the 2008 Safe Climate Campaign, advocating more efficient, less-polluting vehicles to fight global warming.
Praising his work, Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal said in a statement in the Congressional Record of September 29, 2016:
“Through a lifetime of work improving automotive and safety laws, Mr. Ditlow has helped save thousands of lives and prevented many more injuries that would otherwise have occurred. 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.”
With degrees from Lehigh University, Georgetown Law School, and a master of laws degree from Harvard Law School, Mr. Ditlow was the author or co-author of numerous books and publications on auto safety, air pollution and transportation. He updated and edited each year the Automobile Design Liability manual, and also supervised the annual publication of The Car Book, presenting the latest safety ratings, dealer prices, fuel economy, insurance premiums, and maintenance costs for new vehicles.