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Auto safety advocate Clarence Ditlow dies at 72

Staff and wire reports

Clarence M. Ditlow III, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety whose work forced the auto industry to make improvements including installing air bags, has died.

Ditlow died Thursday at the George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., after a struggle with colon cancer, said Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He was 72.

Ditlow joined the center, founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, in the early 1970s. His work there helped lead to the passage of the federal “lemon law” empowering consumers to force automakers to take back faulty vehicles and safety upgrades such as air bags.

“Clarence was the auto industry’s nemesis,” said Claybrook, also president-emeritus of the Public Citizen who said she hired Ditlow in 1971 to work for Nader.

Claybrook said Ditlow took over the center in the mid-1970s and led it for more than 40 years.

She recalled how some thought Ditlow, a shy man at the time, may not be strong enough to stand up to the auto industry. But Claybrook said he had included on his resume that he was a wrestler and “anybody who’s a wrestler is tough as nails.”

Ditlow, who had engineering and law degrees, kicked off his career on a case that led General Motors to recall millions of vehicles for bad engine mounts, she said.

Ditlow also played major roles in dozens of safety recalls, from 1.5 million Ford Pintos with exploding gas tanks in the late ’70s to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Jeeps with a similar problem more recently. He was known for sending numerous Freedom of Information Act requests to the government and recent years was involved with reviewing documents related to the deadly GM ignition switch recall and Toyota Motor Corp.’s unintended acceleration recall.

“He was one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known,” Claybrook said. “He just never gave up.”

Ditlow is survived by his wife, Marilyn Herman.

The Associated Press and Melissa Burden contributed.