WASHINGTON—Clarence Ditlow, the auto safety crusader who fought to expose dangerous defects and put pressure on both the auto industry and regulators to make vehicles safer over the course of a decades-long career, died Nov. 10 at age 72.
Ditlow was the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, a watchdog group founded by Consumers Union and consumer advocate Ralph Nader in 1970. The organization helped prompt some of the highest-profile automotive recalls in history, including the Ford Pinto for exploding gasoline tanks in the 1970s and defective Firestone tires installed on the popular Ford Explorer in the late 1990s.
Ditlow's death came after a yearlong battle with colon cancer, a CAS staff attorney said.
“Spanning four decades, his work forced the auto industry to make vast improvements in the safety, reliability and fuel efficiency of the vehicles on which Americans depend daily,” the center said in statement Nov. 11.
“His accomplishments included safety recalls of tens of millions of vehicles that saved untold thousands of lives, and lemon laws in all 50 states. Since the center was founded in 1970, 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.
“Ralph Nader and Consumers Union established the center to provide consumers a voice for auto safety and quality in Washington and to help owners of ‘lemon' vehicles fight back across the country.”
Ditlow, the son of a Chevrolet service manager, was a chemical engineer and lawyer by training when he joined Nader's group of activists in the late 1960s as a young attorney. He became head of the CAS in 1976 and quickly championed seat belts, airbags and other advanced safety equipment.
National Highway Transportation Safety Administration Administrator Mark Rosekind said Ditlow improved safety for anyone riding or driving a motor vehicle.
“Clarence 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,” Rosekind said in a statement.
“Americans are driving in cars that are safer thanks to Clarence, and his voice as an advocate for safety won't easily be replaced.”