February 27, 2014 at 4:36 pm

Nader blasts retiring Dingell's auto safety record

Washington — Auto safety advocate Ralph Nader on Thursday blasted retiring Rep. John Dingell, a long-time champion of the U.S. auto industry.

Nader, who wrote the 1965 book “Unsafe at any Speed” and clashed with General Motors and other automakers, has often been at odds with Dingell over the last 40 years. The book helped prompt Congress to create a national auto safety agency.

“(Dingell) was totally and cruelly indentured to the auto industry even though he was from an overwhelmingly safe Democratic district. More than any other lawmaker, Democratic or Republican, he fought to make sure that the auto Goliaths got their way in Congress and at the EPA and the Department of Transportation,” Nader said.

Nader blasted Dingell for “delaying the issuance of the life-saving airbag standard, in opposing noxious emission controls on motor vehicles and, most irrationally, in freezing fuel-efficiency rules for many years. He did this with sheer stubborn willpower and by forging a mutually destructive alliance between the Big Three auto companies — GM, Ford, and Chrysler — and the United Auto Workers.”

But Nader said in a statement that Dingell “did much good and much bad” — citing areas outside the auto industry.

Nader argued that Dingell’s opposition to higher fuel economy standards helped lead to the near collapse of GM and Chrysler in 2008.

In early 2007 — with the clout of environmentalists on the rise and the industry’s clout on the decline in Washington — Dingell visited the Big Three CEOs in their Michigan offices to deliver a message: It was time to make a deal to hike fuel efficiency standards, whether they liked it or not.

“When, in recent years, the domestic auto industry’s demise was finally clear to him, he began to relent on fuel efficiency but it was too late to save the industry from its own mismanagement and illusions,” Nader said.

That December, Dingell reached agreement with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on a bill raising fuel efficiency standards at least 40 percent to a fleetwide 35 miles per gallon by 2020. The Obama administration ultimately reached a deal to boost requirements to 54.5 mpg by 2025 — with Dingell trying to ensure the higher mileage mandate didn’t harm automakers.

Through a spokesman, Dingell declined to speak on Nader’s comments.

Dingell has never hid his support of the thousands of his constituents and millions of others outside his district who build cars and parts or depend on the business.

Dingell has become the industry’s go-to guy, and his most notable efforts came in 1979 and 2008-09. He first aided Chrysler Corp. in avoiding extinction by getting a government loan and later helped General Motors and Chrysler avoid liquidation and win more than $60 billion in government bailouts.

A collapse of the U.S. auto industry in 2008 could have led to another Depression, he said.

“Look, I lived through the Depression with my dad when he was in Congress,” Dingell said last year. “I spent much of my life reading about that Depression, and reading about what they had to do to bring us out of it and see that we didn’t have another one.”

Dingell has clashed repeatedly with environmentalists and Democratic colleagues over emissions standards, safety requirements and other auto legislation. His ardent defense of the industry prompted the late U.S. Rep. Ed Madigan, R-Ill.,to dub him “Tailpipe Johnny.”

But the congressman also says he prodded automakers to improve.

“I pushed for the highest technically achievable standards, but I also pushed for them in a way that did not destroy the auto industry,” Dingell said. “You’ll find we still got the best standards on automobile fuel efficiency and clean air in the world. I don’t have any shame on that.”

Dingell helped push bills to require more American content in vehicles. He helped write a compromise bill on auto recall policy in 2000, after the deaths of more 270 people linked to Firestone tires primarily on Ford Explorers.

As recently as 2012, Dingell helped automakers stave off a proposed bill that would have boosted maximum fines for delaying recalls to $250 million — up from $17 million. Instead, Congress boosted the maximum fines to $35 million and dropped nearly all of the proposed safety mandates.

Dingell wants Americans to have the freedom to buy the vehicles they want, and not be forced into smaller vehicles.

“This is still a free nation where people buy what they want and where the government doesn’t tell them what they can buy,” he said.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com