Consumers' Crusader Joan Claybrook Steps Down

Consumer advocate Joan Claybrook served as president of Public Citizen. For over two decades, she fought for safer cars, food and other products. Claybrook talks about her advocacy work, and the role that her organization has played in improving safety.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Today, airbags are standard equipment in all cars. White House papers are publicly available online, and the FDA - when the FDA banned - has banned the dietary supplement ephedra. These achievements may seem unrelated, but they all trace back to the nonprofit advocacy organization Public Citizen.

Joan Claybrook is retiring from Public Citizen after 27 years as its president. And we'll speak to her in a moment. We'll also want to hear from you. What public safety or regulation issue would you like to see addressed? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joan Claybrook joins us now in Studio 3A. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. JOAN CLAYBROOK (President, Public Citizen): Thank you so much.

WERTHEIMER: Looking back at almost three decades of Public Citizen, what do you think was your biggest moment?

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Well, I think the one that's had the most impact is getting airbags in cars. It was a 20-year battle. And the auto industry did everything, every maneuver you can think of, including going to the Supreme Court, to avoid it. And they finally had to concede when the Supreme Court ruled that the Department of Transportation had the authority to require airbags and that Elizabeth Dole - the records show that Elizabeth Dole had to reissue that rule. And it was one that I'd issued, and then it had been revoked by the Reagan administration. So…

WERTHEIMER: So you were briefly - you served in the government.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Right. I served in the government as the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for four years under Jimmy Carter. And that's when I did that.

And I had fought for them before that, and then I fought for them after that, and worked with State Farm Insurance in winning that Supreme Court case. And then the rule was finally issued. And now about 3,000 lives a year are saved in America. And worldwide, it's many, many more than that because of airbags, and thousands - tens of thousands of injuries are reduced.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, many of the other things that you have done in the course of your life with Public Citizen have been efforts to make it possible to protect rights that citizens have to proceed when they have been injured by something or to try to keep regulations in place that the government wants to take out or an industry wants to cancel, and so forth. Those are, well, incredibly important, of course, or sort of less concrete than saving 3,000 people's lives.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Well, you can measure the airbag's life saving.

WERTHEIMER: Yeah.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: But others are - have made a huge difference. For example, we passed legislation that prevented longer combination, triple-trailer trucks from coming to the East Coast and many of the states. We got a freeze on keeping them where they were in 1991.

WERTHEIMER: That's in - that is in, mostly, in the long, straight interstates of the West.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: That's correct. And we've opened up public records in so many different ways. We have filed hundreds and hundreds of cases under the Freedom of Information Act. We've won almost every one of them. So our litigation group has played a major role. We've been in the Supreme Court, I think, in 55 cases, which is just remarkable.

And we've pressed for keeping unsafe drugs off the market or getting them off the market if they're currently used, as well as medical devices. And we've worked on energy policy issues, trying to reduce the subsidies for fossil fuels that are huge - billions and billions - 30, $40 a year - and reallocate those for energy conservation and renewable energy.

And so, it's - and then we worked on campaign finance reform…

WERTHEIMER: Yes.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: …which is…

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: As I - I know I should, perhaps, confess here, a conflict. You know, Joan Claybrook has worked with my husband on campaign finance reform. Joan and I have known each other - we've been friends for, like, 30 years, and we're neighbors, as well.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: That's right.

WERTHEIMER: So, there you have it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: The organization was founded in 1971 by Ralph Nader.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Right.

WERTHEIMER: And that was sort of around the "Unsafe At Any Speed" time, talking, you know, with - auto safety was a big issue.

But the organization expanded and moved - I wouldn't say moved past, but encompassed other kinds of issues other than cars and car safety, as important as that has remained.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Yes, and the reason why is that what Ralph Nader wanted to do was to have some access to the government through litigation, through lobbying, and through getting information made available, but also deal with issues of crucial interest to consumers, whether it was safe drugs or unsafe drugs, cars, medical devices, energy, the cost of energy, as well as the kind of energy that's available.

And with - more recently, in the last 15 years, 20 years, I guess, started working on international trade, because it deals with a lot of the same regulatory issues that Public Citizen has traditionally worked on, and attempts to preempt or undercut the consumer side of those regulations.

And many people say regulations, they don't like regulations. But in fact regulations are what makes us a civil society. And many of the things that we've worked on have been incredibly controversial. Airbags is just one example, where the companies opposed it and said they would harm people and all the rest. And then eventually they've become standard equipment and everyone says, oh, yeah, airbags. Yeah, we wouldn't buy a car without airbags.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, we recently had a couple of pretty scary things happen with material - toys in one case imported from China. And I think one of the reactions that I thought was very interesting that people had was that they thought these little toys must be safe, because aren't these kinds of things regulated? And in fact, the - you know, those sorts of imports were kind of slipping in under the radar because regulation kind of varies in terms of intensity from president to president.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: It does vary in intensity and also there are changes in the marketplace. And if the marketplace changes, sometimes the regulatory system doesn't keep up-to-date with it. And that's one of the major things that Public Citizen works on. We try and get new laws passed when we get behind the times. And we try and increase the funding and support staff for some of these agencies so they can do their job.

And during the Bush administration, huge numbers of imports increased from China, and the agency - the Consumer Product Safety Commission did not keep up-to-date with it, did not get decent funding, only had two of the five commissioner slots even filled, and so - and didn't want to regulate. And so it's - we're in a big catch-up now, and there hopefully will be substantially increased funding and the ability with a new law that we got passed to regulate more substantially.

WERTHEIMER: I just met somebody the other day who has been appointed a commissioner of that agency, so they are recessing(ph) it.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: They are recessing.

WERTHEIMER: Re-inflating it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Right.

WERTHEIMER: We have an email here from Robin in Portland, Oregon, who says she would like to see hands-free cell phone laws in effect in all states. Ninety percent of the close calls I've had in cars have been attributable to the other driver being on a cell phone. People think they can drive and be on the phone but in fact they can't.

You know, if I were doing it, I don't think I'd go for hands-free cell phones either, but what do you think of that as an issue?

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Well, one of the problems with cell phones is that they're a distraction when you're driving. And your brain is distracted, it's not just your hands. And so hands-free is good, no cell phones is better.

And one of the issues that I've worked on recently has been whether truck drivers should be allowed to use them, because those vehicles take much longer to stop, they are much more dangerous to the public, and that's a big issue in debate.

My view is that we certainly ought to have hands-free and no texting. No texting at all. But it would be even better if we didn't have the cell phones at all.

WERTHEIMER: Here's another one. This is from Paul, who is in Minnesota, and he wants to know if you think motorcycles should be outlawed. I would say that that sounds like an impossible thing to do.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Well, I don't think they should be outlawed. But I think that there ought to be very strict enforcement and everyone ought to be required to use a helmet.

When I became the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, all but three states required helmet laws. And then the Congress, in 1976, passed a provision that allowed the states to choose themselves rather than to be pushed by the federal government with funds. And so about half the states now have motorcycle helmet use laws.

If we're going to have the ability to use motorcycles, it ought to be required to wear a helmet. In addition, I think that there ought to be a requirement that you can't drive a motorcycle until you're 21, because the number of crashes go down dramatically after you pass your teenage years. And…

WERTHEIMER: (Unintelligible)

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Right.

WERTHEIMER: The motorcycle crews that I see out on the road are like multiples of 21 for the most part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Right.

WERTHEIMER: Let's take a call here from Portland, Oregon. This is Julie, who wants to talk about truck drivers. Julie?

JULIE (Caller): Hi. Yes. I had the privilege of working with Joan Claybrook when I was with Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, and that's an organization that had dedicated itself to promoting truck safety on the highways. And first of all, Joan, I just - what a privilege it was to work with you and have great memories of that.

And I just wanted to say that the continuation, just following through with the need to make sure that we limit the number of hours that truck drivers are allowed to drive so that we don't have the fatigue crashes that we still continue to see on the highways. Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Okay.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Well, thank you very much, Julie. I miss you. You were great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CLAYBROOK: And I would say that just yesterday I was at a meeting of this organization with the secretary of transportation, Ray LaHood, and his deputy, and the individual that they have nominated to be the new regulator of truck safety, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, who comes from the trucking industry in Maryland. And a number of people that you know and would expect to know who have been - who've lost loved ones in truck crashes were there and are very disturbed about why the Obama administration would nominate somebody from the trucking industry to regulate the trucking industry. And it was (unintelligible) and we don't know what the outcome is going to be.

But what we raised were the issues of having limited number of hours that truck drivers can drive, having enforceability of those hours through a black box on the truck, not having an increase in truck size and weight and not getting rid of this freeze, which the trucking industry wants to do on these longer combination vehicles. So we're there, Julie, and help us if you can.

WERTHEIMER: You know, here at NPR we just had a really awful loss. One of our colleagues' two sons were killed when a truck struck the back of their car and pushed it into another truck. And it was, you know, a devastating experience. I mean, just thinking about it. And of course it just simply had to do with these trucks are so big and so difficult, as you pointed out, to stop in a short distance.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: When that happens, 99 percent, the truck driver is asleep or almost asleep. Because they can generally jackknife that truck and stop it if they have to, if they're alert. But when a truck plows into somebody, it means that the truck driver is not alert. And so that's a huge issue. And unfortunately the number of hours that a truck driver is allowed to drive today, you would not believe, 88 hours in a week.

WERTHEIMER: Oh my goodness.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Yes. Right. Most people don't realize that this is like slave labor, because they're exempt from the overtime rule, so the truck companies want to push them as hard as they can. They got the Bush administration to issue a rule, which we've twice gotten overruled by the Federal Courts of Appeal, and yet they issued it again. It's now under a third challenge. And it allows 11 hours of driving, plus a restart, which means they have a very short weekend and they got a restart all over again. And when you add it all up, it's that amount of - in a week. And it's insane. It really is insane. And they also get paid by the mile, so they have every incentive - the truck drivers - to drive as fast and as long as they can, and to cheat on their hours.

WERTHEIMER: Joan, do you think that the Obama administration, despite this recent appointment, which you say has upset people, do you think that this is a sort of a window to do some clean-up of regulations to try to move forward on some of the issues that you are in favor of?

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Oh, absolutely. And one of the things that we've been pushing, for example, is citizen access to the courts, which means that companies are deterred if they know that someone can sue them from cheating them or defrauding them and - or harming them. And of many, many consumer contracts today - for credit cards, for buying a home for investments, bank accounts - have a requirement in the form contract that you agree to mandatory pre-dispute arbitration, which means you cannot go to court. And we've got legislation introduced - many, many cosponsors. And now - and we've been doing studies of these arbitration companies, the ones that supply the arbitrators, who have every interest in finding for the Bank of America or whoever because that's the repeat…

WERTHEIMER: Business.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: …person - business that they represent.

WERTHEIMER: Sure.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: And - or that they do work for. And so just the other day, Bank of America agreed not to require mandatory arbitration anymore. Two of the three arbitration companies have said they won't handle consumer debt collection cases anymore. And so we're really making some progress here. But it takes involvement of citizens in this process, not just public citizen and national consumer organizations, but people all over the country to file their complaints and to make a fuss and to participate in trying to change these rules.

WERTHEIMER: Well, if there is an opportunity to do some of that kind of work now, I mean an extra good opportunity, perhaps, are you sorry to be leaving now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Well, I'm leaving Public Citizen to a new and different generation. And I have a very wonderful successor who is just going to take over. But that doesn't mean that I'm leaving this field. And - I'm taking a rest. I'm getting out, you know, a little bit. But I've already been called upon by endless people to help them with their projects. I've agreed to do a couple of things to help them. And then I'll see - you know, I'll come back. It's just that I need some time off.

WERTHEIMER: Well, I - it sounds like you've been relatively busy in this sort of swansong period.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: I have been busy, actually. I've been trying to help my successor and I've been going through a bunch of files to clean up everything that I had, you know, like endless numbers of files. And I'm still finishing that. And then I'm advising several different organizations and groups, and I still serve on Public Citizens' board and several other boards. And they all seem to be having meetings in the fall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CLAYBROOK: So I seem to be running all over the place, actually. So I'm - I guess I'm sort of naturally an involved person. So I'll still be doing stuff. I don't know what it's going to be, but I will.

WERTHEIMER: Well, congratulations on a very - an extraordinary professional life in trying to make things better for the rest of us.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Well, thank you so much.

WERTHEIMER: Joan Claybrook, she is here with us in Studio 3A. She served as president of the nonprofit public interest organization Public Citizen. She's been its president 27 years - is that right, Joan? Thank you very much for being here.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Thank you.

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