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The Guardian Angel for America’s Motorists

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.

Calm, deliberate and a man of few words, this graduate of Lehigh, Georgetown Law and Harvard Law School bore down on wrongdoing, negligence and bureaucratic passivity with jack-hammer intensity year in and year out. 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.

I recruited this remarkable man about 45 years ago to work on auto safety. It took no more than fifteen minutes for me to invite him to work with us full-time. That’s the kind of first impression he made. He was serious, committed and answered every question with clarity and brevity. His ability to distill and convey information resulted in reporters regularly tapping him for television, radio, and newspaper interviews.

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.

The son of a service manager in a Chevrolet dealership in Pennsylvania, this cheerful fighter for highway safety knew about inside relationships between dealers and their auto companies that cost the consumers so much.

Consider how he made concrete the ethics of prevention touted by the engineering and legal professions:

1. Illustrative of many other previous major recalls, Mr. Ditlow’s Center was the primary force behind recent recalls of 7 million Toyotas for sudden acceleration, 2 million Jeeps for fuel tank fires, 11 million GM vehicles for defective ignition switches, and more than 60 million faulty Takata airbag inflators. (See http://www.autosafety.org/statement-of-the-center-for-auto-safety-on-the-death-of-executive-director-clarence-m-ditlow-iii/.)

2. Ditlow launched in 2008 the Safe Climate Campaign to press for more fuel efficient, less-polluting vehicles.

3. He and his Center staff were leaders in pressing for Congressional passage of the 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, the fuel economy provisions of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act and the disclosure of hitherto secret automotive technical service bulletins sent to dealers by auto manufacturers alerting them to hazardous defects in their cars.

After the passage of each law, Mr. Ditlow watchdogged the implementation, or lack thereof. He even conducted seminars for lawyers to learn the intricacies of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act to help them represent motorists who have been ripped off by the automotive industry.

An educator at heart, Mr. Ditlow authored or co-authored numerous books, most notably The Lemon Book, as well as The Lemon Law Litigation Manual, Little Secrets of the Auto Industry and the Annual Automobile Design Liability Manual (published by Thomson Reuters).

The Lemon Book, which he co-authored with me, was a comprehensive guide for motorists to avoid, defend and deter bad practices in the automotive marketplace. It helped that Clarence Ditlow was the indefatigable promoter of enacting lemon laws in all 50 states which led to thousands of lawyers representing owners of lemon automobiles nationwide.

A little known side of this safety advocate was his view of the auto insurance industry’s responsibilities to engage in loss-prevention activities. Fewer crashes, fewer injuries, mean fewer claims on these companies. Years ago he persuaded some of them to work with his organization to advance safer road and highway engineering.

You could hardly have imagined a more perfect blend of knowledge, compassion, persistence, resilience, extraordinary strategic and communication abilities and factual diligence as was embodied in such an amiable man. He was a civic personality par excellence who never wavered in his many fights with wayward corporate adversaries.

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.

Even those close to the auto industry had great respect for Clarence. Keith Crain, Editor-in-Chief of the renowned Automotive News told me today: “Clarence Ditlow should be remembered for saving thousands of lives. That was his most important contribution to society. He cannot be replaced.”

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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