Public Gladiator

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One-time head of the National Highway Safety Administration?Joan Claybrook spoke at Wayne Law April 2 as part of the lecture series honoring Dean A. Robb. Claybrook was instrumental in lobbying for passage of the country’s first auto safety laws.

Photo by Steve Thorpe

Claybrook urges law students to consider public advocacy

By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Auto safety pioneer Joan Claybrook has been outside the government looking in as a public advocacy lobbyist and attorney and she’s been in the belly of the beast as the top official of the National Highway Safety Administration. But as she told an audience of law students, faculty and community at Wayne State University Law School, she’s always believed that transparency and honesty were essential. 

“I ran NHTSA as a public entity because I believe the public is wiser than anybody else,” Claybrook said.

But that openness didn’t necessarily mean niceness.

“I am essentially a gladiator for the public,” she said. “I especially enjoyed forcing the government and corporations to bow to the interests of the citizens.”

She also didn’t measure success by the usual yardsticks or equate being liked with being effective.

“You have to be tough,” Claybrook said. “Able to withstand endless pressures to cut deals and to consider it a badge of honor when the Wall Street Journal criticizes you in 27 editorials, which they did to me.” 

Claybrook’s talk on Wednesday, April 2, was the second in a lecture series honoring Dean A. Robb, a 1949 Wayne Law alumnus, civil rights attorney and social activist. The series is presented by Wayne Law’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights and sponsored by the Public Justice Foundation and the Royal Oak law firm of Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers PC. Michael Pitt, Wayne Law class of 1974, is managing partner of the firm.

Claybrook held a press conference at the law school before her presentation where she talked about General Motors’ current safety controversies involving faulty ignition switches that have apparently led to multiple deaths. GM CEO Mary Barra has spent the week being grilled by a hostile committee in Congress about the issue.

Claybrook decried the attitudes and missteps that led to the deaths, but also said she believes that the repercussions may offer opportunities for both Barra and GM.

“For Mary Barra and General Motors … I think she now has the greatest opportunity in the world to change that company,” Claybrook said during her lecture. “She has more power, I think, right now today, than any GM executive has ever had. She can do a lot to reform that company and its decision making processes. She says that the safety of her customers is her top priority and I want to see her make that happen structurally within General Motors.”

Claybrook met Ralph Nader in Washington and they became friends before they teamed up in 1966 to successfully lobby for the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act, the first U.S. auto safety laws. The laws allowed the federal government to establish safety standards for new vehicles and issue recalls for defective vehicles. They formed Public Citizen and Claybrook served as president of the organization from 1982 though 2008.

She was head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) beginning in the Carter administration from 1977 to 1981. As agency head, she oversaw the first standards requiring airbags in all passenger vehicles and the first fuel-economy laws.

Claybrook received her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center in 1973. 

She urged the law students in attendance to avoid the siren song of high-paying jobs for big firms and corporations and to instead devote their legal talents to public advocacy.

 “Being a public interest litigator is the best job you could ever have,” she said. “I urge you all to take the lower-paying, but much better jobs in the public interest. There was a wonderful saying by a civil rights lawyer in Washington, who said ‘They made all the money and we had all the fun.’”

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