Auto Safety Crusader Dies

The passing of attorney Clarence M. Ditlow III (no, not the similarly named Clarence Darrow, another legal giant) received little press coverage last week. The brilliant lawyer was the long-time director of the Center for Auto Safety.

Mr. Ditlow was responsible for some of the most important improvements in vehicle safety. His tireless advocacy led to airbags, seat belts, lemon laws, child safety seats, anti-texting legislation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the countless recalls of defective vehicles.

Ditlow’s mentor was the preeminent consumer rights lawyer, Ralph Nader, who founded the CAS. Nader kicked off his career back in 1965 by writing the landmark book Unsafe At Any Speed which documented the easily exploding Ford Pinto and the incompetent automobile manufacturing industry.

But who then could have imagined that the Pinto wasn’t just an anomaly, but was instead a harbinger of the next 50-plus years of deadly vehicles? Just in the last few years, Toyota’s cars acceleratingGeneral Motors’s vehicles not shutting off, and Takata’s airbags exploding have killed or injured thousands of people.

And there’s apparently no end in sight. Last year, a shocking 51 million vehicles had to be recalled due to defective safety designs.

Ditlow also fought for bans on the now rampant cell phone use and texting while driving — constant rants of mine here since these dangerous practices lead to so many crashes. 

I have often written about defective vehicles and Ditlow’s work, including here in 2009. I have been interested in this area for a long time. When I was in college, I was inspired by Nader, joined his Research Group at the University of Texas, and advocated for transportation safety in Austin. I started law school in 1976, the year Ditlow took the helm of the CAS, and took tort and trial classes to prepare for my practice as a personal injury lawyer.

Safety Improvements Needed 

Cudos to the CAS for taking on the almost one trillion dollar auto industry to make our roads safer for all of us – and on a tiny budget.  But there is so much more work that needs to be done.

To make our highways safer, here’s my wish-list for further badly needed auto safety improvements:

  • Pass an anti-texting ban. It’s time to put an end to this proven roadway danger. If a virus were killing more than 3,100 people a year and injuring 431,000, we’d call it an epidemic and pour millions of dollars into fighting it. So why can’t Texas lawmakers simply pass legislation that prevents the deadly texting while driving epidemic?
  • Pass harsher DWI laws. Almost 10,000 people died in alcohol related accidents in 2014, accounting for one-third of all traffic deaths. MADD and other organizations do a great job of educating drivers and advocating for harsher laws. But, lawmakers and police clearly can do better.
  • Improve recall system of defective cars. When millions of cars were recalled because of the deadly Takata airbag defect, many vehicle owners had to wait for months for repairs. In the meantime, drivers were forced to take a frightening chance just to get to work or their kids to school. Some owners never learned about the recall until they crashed.
  • Hold automakers responsible for defects. Firestone, GM and Takata knew about defects that killed and injured thousands of people. And yet they cared more about making money than saving lives. The manufacturer needs to be held liable for injuries and deaths caused by its negligence.

To honor this unsung auto safety hero’s legacy, I made a contribution to the CAS. We need for it to continue to advocate for safer vehicles and roads.

Related post:

2015 Was Worst Year Ever For Auto Safety

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