Clarence Ditlow, auto safety watchdog and pioneer, dies at 72
By Ralph Vartabedian
Clarence Ditlow, who for more than four decades was the nation’s top auto safety advocate, died Thursday after a long battle with cancer. He was 72.
Known as a tireless watchdog, Ditlow called out federal regulators whom he accused of bowing to business executives and lobbyists seeking to weaken safety rules or sidestep costly repairs to defective vehicles.
An attorney and an engineer, he brought the ferocity of a college wrestler to his mission, but without the personality that inflamed opponents.
It was Ditlow, along with Ralph Nader and Joan Claybrook, who led the consumer movement from the early 1970s — putting pressure on an industry reluctant to introduce standard safety features in new cars, such as air bags, collapsing steering columns and stronger tires.
"There is nobody like him,” Nader said Friday. “He was a watchdog to be heeded, because he was so strategic and so focused. He had knowledge, compassion and resilience.”
Ditlow served as executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, an organization set up by Nader and Claybrook. While there, he plumbed the depths of engineering detail and legal technicalities to outmaneuver federal regulators.
He led the charge on such crucial safety issues as the Jeep Grand Cherokee fuel tank fires, the faulty General Motors ignition switches and the deadly Firestone 500 tire defect. Ditlow became a force in therecall of 7 million Toyota vehicles for their tendency to accelerate out of control after The Times published an award-winning series detailing the problem.
“He was very good at dissecting industry excuses,” Claybrook said. “I hired him when I looked at his resume and saw he was a wrestler at Lehigh” University.
But for all of his influence over a multibillion-dollar global industry, Ditlow worked as a virtual one-man shop out of a modest office in Washington, D.C. He paid himself no more than a $50,000 annual salary and could be found working late into the evenings and early in the mornings.
He made himself available to journalists through the years, despite being a shy, unassuming and intensely private person. Once, when The Times begged him for a home telephone number, Ditlow provided his then-girlfriend’s cellphone number but refused to say to whom it belonged.
He married that longtime companion, Marilyn Hermann, on Oct. 22.
Unlike many consumer advocates, Ditlow had the academic stature to take on almost any opponent that the industry or government put in front of him. He earned a degree in chemical engineering from Lehigh, graduated from Georgetown Law School and earned a master of laws from Harvard Law School. He began his career as a patent examiner before joining Nader as a staff lawyer.
Although Ditlow was a tireless opponent of the industry, he did not attract nearly the amount of hostility that was focused on Nader, who triggered the safety movement when he attacked the Chevrolet Corvair over its unsafe suspension system. Ditlow was seen as less hard-edged and caustic than some of his contemporaries.
“His surgeon loved him so much that she sat for two hours last week by his beside and sang to him,” said Nader. “I don’t know anybody who disliked him. Of course, they disliked me.”
David Cole, an auto industry expert and former engineering professor at the University of Michigan, said executives in many cases might have eventually introduced safety equipment, but Ditlow forced them to do it sooner.
“Clarence Ditlow was a force,” said Cole. “He put a focus on safety and amplified the message across the country. Everybody benefited.”
Ditlow died at George Washington University Hospital. He is survived by his wife.
Nader said Ditlow had battled cancer for the past year.