By on November 12, 2016

Clarence Ditlow, Image: Luis Alvarez/Associated Press

Passionate automotive safety advocate and longtime Center for Auto Safety executive director Clarence Ditlow has died at age 72.

From his early work with Ralph Nader to his 40 years at CAS, Ditlow was by all accounts a shy, hard-working man who turned into an attack dog when he felt an automaker’s neglect put drivers’ safety at risk.

Since the early 1970s, Ditlow played a role in exposing glaring automotive safety concerns, sparking massive recalls in the process. During this time, Ditlow proved instrumental in seeing lemon laws passed in all 50 states, as well as upgraded road safety standards.

Still, it’s the recalls — and the damaging limelight cast on the offending automakers — that stands out the most. After taking the helm of CAS in 1976, Ditlow immediately put the heat on Ford for its fire-prone Pintos. The popular compact featured a gas tank that could rupture during rear-end collisions, and in 1978 the automaker was forced to recall 1.5 million models, sullying the brand.

Ford Pinto 3-Door Stallion Runabout Brochure Page, Image: Ford

Ditlow was just getting started. Over the course of the next four decades, Ditlow and his Center helped expose the dangers of GM’s side-saddle pickup truck gas tanks, Firestone tire-equipped Ford Explorers, faulty GM ignition switches, and in his final year, the potential for danger with Tesla’s Autopilot semi-autonomous driving system. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was a frequent target, as he felt the agency went too easy on automakers.

“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,” the Center for Auto Safety said in a statement on Ditlow’s passing.

The Center continued:

Under Mr. Ditlow, the Center played a major role in these recalls, among others: 6.7 million Chevrolets for defective engine mounts, 15 million Firestone 500 tires, 1.5 million Ford Pintos for exploding gas tanks, and 3 million Evenflo child seats for defective latches.

In the past seven years alone, 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, and more than 60 million faulty Takata airbag inflators.

At one of the Center’s first staff meetings, Mr. Nader made the installation of air bags a key early goal. It took approximately 20 years to accomplish it, but they are now standard in all vehicles.

While Ditlow was no less passionate about safety than his contemporary Ralph Nader, he was seen as less combative, which may have helped his ability to prod federal regulators into action.

“His surgeon loved him so much that she sat for two hours last week by his beside and sang to him,” Nader told the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t know anybody who disliked him. Of course, they disliked me.”

Ditlow died Thursday after a year-long battle with colon cancer.

[Images: Luis Alvarez/Associated Press; Ford]

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18 Comments on “From the Pinto to Tesla, Safety Crusader Clarence Ditlow Spent a Lifetime Fighting Dangerous Cars...”

  • avatar

    Good American did a good job that overspilled into other regions.

  • avatar

    The older I get, the more I realize the necessity for guys like Ditlow.

    As it turned out, we learned cars could be both safe AND fun.

    Thank you for your service to the industry.

  • avatar
    Old Man Pants (nee Kenmore)

    Thank you, Mr. Scary Face.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    A great guy who devoted himself to all Americans.

  • avatar

    What’s his old sidekick Joan “85mph” Claybrook up to these days?

  • avatar

    Same age my father died from colon cancer.

  • avatar

    “sullied the brand”…considering the Ford executives calculated it was cheaper to have some people burn to death and pay off the suits than to have a recall. Sullied indeed. Clarence did a world of service, and hardly got rich off of it.

    Odd about the colon cancer; is that not readily identified?

    • 0 avatar

      @golden2husky – that would depend on the signs and symptoms he was having and whether or not he chose to ignore some of them until it was too late i.e. metastatic.

      @indi500fan – if there is no family history and no changes in bowel habits it may have been deemed unnecessary.

      • 0 avatar

        Based on my own personal experience, don’t let the medical cost cutters steer you wrong. The scope is no big deal, the purge solution has improved immensely in the last couple years (not nearly so noxious to drink the night before), and you get nice digital pics of your insides.

    • 0 avatar

      that “Pinto Memo” wasn’t even about the Pinto.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Back in the late 70’s I had a friend who had a Mustang with Firestone 500 tires. One of them broke a belt around the time of the recall which apparently was its weak point and one of the reasons for the recall. Good thing it was recalled in time before a possible tragic incident. I had actually considered a set for the 70 Mustang I drove at the time. Thanks Clarence!

  • avatar

    Who was more responsible for the dramatic decline in traffic fatalities, Nader, Ditlow and Claybrook, or Bela Barenyi (crush zones and safety cells), Nils Bohlin (3 point harness) and the Eaton Corp (airbags)?

    • 0 avatar


      I think you need the gadfly after the technology is developed. Call it what you want, but along with old fashioned cost cutting by manufacturers, on government oversight, regulatory capture is as good a term as any for what happens otherwise. We’ll have to see whether Trump can get some revolving door legislation passed by Congress to make the government/corporation relationship a little less cozy.
      Hard to believe, but there are still people who think it’s better being thrown clear of the accident and who grumble about how flimsy cars are today. I know some of them.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      Add Daniel Patrick Moynihan to the list.

      ” In Washington, Nader’s law school paper on auto design liability came to the attention of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then Assistant Secretary of Labor and later a U.S. Senator. Moynihan had a long interest in auto design and highway safety issues and had written a famous article in April 1959 titled “Epidemic on the Highways.” Moynihan contracted Nader in 1964 as a part-time consultant at the Labor Department at the rate of $50 a day. During this contract, Nader reportedly worked odd hours often arriving at his office after midnight. He compiled a report titled, Context, Condition and Recommended Direction of Federal Activity in Highway Safety; a report that was meant primarily for background purposes and received little attention.”

    • 0 avatar

      This was very much a joint effort. Ralph wrote and posted a column about Clarence on his website at the following link:

      Earlier this year when Ralph Nader was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, Ralph made it clear that he had lots of help and among others he thanked the many “anonymous” Detroit insiders who leaked confidential information to him.

  • avatar
    Old Man Pants

    Oh, yoo-hoo… Admins,

    Meesa thinkin’ I can drop the Kenmore part now, yes?

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