Late last year, a longtime crusader for motoring safety died at the age of 72. His name was Clarence Ditlow III – not well known outside the US, however he was an important campaigner alongside Ralph Nader. He was born in 1944 in Georgia, in the southern States of the US.
Ditlow was the son of a service manager at a Chevrolet dealer, so he was born into the industry. He studied chemical engineering at university and then joined the US Patent Office as an examiner. It was whilst he was at the Patent Office that he met Nader who became a mentor. He also carried on studying – this time law, gaining a degree and then specialising in environmental law.
In 1976, Ditlow became the Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety, a not for profit consumer advocacy group. He was in that position when he died last year. It was this group that instigated many recalls and help push through the “Lemon Laws” in the US that protected consumers when they bought vehicles that shouldn’t have been on the market. Ditlow was instrumental in many recalls, of which the following list is a mere snippet of his career:
- The infamous Firestone fitted Ford Explorer accidents that meant a recall of millions of tyres. It was actually more than just the Explorer – the tyres were fitted to several other models and there were structural issues with the tyre that caused them to suddenly deflate.
- The recall of the Ford Pinto due to a badly positioned fuel tank, again after serious accidents. During a rear-end accident, several vehicles caught fire after the tank split.
- The recall of Toyotas that had sudden acceleration when drivers least expected it causing some serious accidents. Toyota were ultimately fined $1.2B for not dealing with the recall quick enough.
- The very recent, and ongoing, recall of Takata airbags.
He was a campaigner of consumer rights and it was his research and analysis that countered the arguments put forward by the manufacturers. He was very thorough and with his legal and engineering background was able to build cases against his opponents, in some cases using statistical analysis to put enough doubt in the case.
The key for Ditlow, as it was in the 1950s and 60s for Robert MacNamara at Ford and then as Secretary of Defence, was data. The Center for Auto Safety collected thousands, if not millions, of points of data and it was the mining of this data that helped them to figure out what was going on – decades before the concept of “Big Data”.
The recent airbag recall was probably difficult for Ditlow – he was the main campaigner to have them mandatorily fitted to all cars. As the research developed during the 1980s about how airbags could save lives, Ditlow pushed hard to get the US Government to change the laws, which were enacted in the mid 1990s. It would have been quite disappointing for him to find out that the safety device he had campaigned for, had now – in some instances – become a deadly flying weapon.
He was the type of campaigner that President Trump rails against – the person who demands greater regulation that adds pages and pages of new laws and rules. However, it was people like Ditlow who “kept the bastards honest”, keeping watch on the National Highway & Traffic Administration to ensure that they were not swayed by the manufacturers and lobbyists.
There is no way of calculating how many lives he would have saved through his campaigning, simply because finding the problems, getting awareness and then the resolution would have prevented many more serious injuries from happening.
Interestingly, his upbringing influenced him for life – he drove a succession of Chevrolets!