Richard O. Simpson, a self-made Republican businessman who as the first chairman of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission aggressively protected the American public from buying millions of risky goods, died on July 21 in DeLand, Fla., north of Orlando. He was 93.
His death, in a hospital near his home, was confirmed by his daughter Karen Simpson Tweedie.
Mr. Simpson was appointed to the commission by President Richard M. Nixon in 1973, shortly after it was created by a Democratic Congress. He immediately made the agency’s work broadly transparent to the public.
He was so assertive that when the surgeon general declared that smoking was a health hazard, Mr. Simpson proposed banning the sale of cigarettes altogether, a prerogative that he later acknowledged was beyond the commission’s jurisdiction.
Still, during his three-year tenure, the commission declared some 25 million items unsafe and demanded that they be recalled, repaired or replaced. They included flammable mattresses, TV antennas that could lead to electrocution and pill bottles without child-resistant caps.
“He was the first and best of the numerous heads of the commission, and he was still monitoring and pushing the commission from his retirement,” the consumer advocate Ralph Nader said by phone.
“He believed in law enforcement,” Mr. Nader added. “He didn’t have his antenna out for the corporate lobbyists, like most new regulatory agencies.”
Mr. Simpson’s challenge was to balance “unreasonable risk” with the impact that retooling a product would have on the financial cost both to consumers and manufacturers and to the economy more broadly. A regulatory decision concerning a product could result in halted production and job layoffs and carry “the potential for industry dislocation, the loss of choice by consumers and the likely impact on prices,” as Mr. Simpson put it.
Acknowledging at a Congressional budget hearing that his agency had a “frightening amount of authority,” he declared that its power had to be exercised prudently.
“If you tried to build every house so it couldn’t burn,” he told The Christian Science Monitor, “you might well triple the cost — and you might not want to live in it.”
On one birthday, his wife gave him a present that exemplified the potential for overreach: a toothpick with both ends safely swaddled in cotton. The accompanying card read: “Your birthday gift has been approved by the U.S. Safety Commission.”
Richard Olin Simpson was born on March 7, 1930, in Independence, Mo., the sixth of nine children of Clyde and Lily (Holler) Simpson. His father was a carpenter, but the family was impoverished. Mr. Simpson recalled having to wait in line to collect welfare payments.
He was the first member of his family to finish high school. After enlisting in the Navy and serving during the Korean War, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1956. He briefly studied law there before enrolling in graduate engineering courses at Stanford University.
Mr. Simpson started an engineering firm that specialized in naval electronics and weapon systems; became vice president of the Rucker Company, an electronics firm, which introduced a protective device that guarded against electrocution; and ran an engineering services firm. In 1969, he joined the U.S. Commerce Department, where he helped shape safety standards for children’s sleepwear.
He was acting assistant secretary for science and technology when he was appointed chairman of the consumer commission.
With its first vote, the commission stunned manufacturers by refusing to delay the effective date of a standard for mattress flammability.
It banned the rear step on tricycles — bikes ranking at the top of its consumer product hazard index — to keep other children from hitching rides and falling off; regulated butane cigarette lighters that produced flames the length of three cigars; and urged the recall of powerful adhesives that glued the user’s fingers together.
His commitment to child-resistant caps on medicine containers was personal. Years earlier, two of his children had to have their stomachs pumped after digesting too many candy-flavored aspirin tablets while playing doctor.
“We have taken an agency born in controversy, during a period of very low government credibility, and, by abolishing the restraints that secrecy imposes, have created an agency that people can believe in,” he told The New York Times in 1975.
Mr. Simpson left the commission in early 1976 after Gerald R. Ford had succeeded Nixon as president, frustrated with political interference by the White House over staff appointments and delays over whether he would be reappointed. (The current chairman is Alexander Hoehn-Saric, who was nominated by President Biden.)
Mr. Simpson later returned to the private sector — recommending that the product industry police itself — and wrote a book, “The Quest for Safer Products” (2016).
He married Patricia Ann Kramer in 1949; she died in 2003. In addition to his daughter Karen, he is survived by his children Dianne Tuohy, Norma Simpson Bufford and Richard and David Simpson; 13 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
As a reminder of the balancing act between consumers and the broader public interest that every commission decision entailed, Mr. Simpson’s clutter-free desk at the agency was dominated by a single ornament. Like the toothpick, it was a gift from his wife: A lead sculpture of a boy, crouching, preparing to spring into a handstand.
Sam Roberts, an obituaries reporter, was previously The Times’s urban affairs correspondent and is the host of “The New York Times Close Up,” a weekly news and interview program on CUNY-TV. More about Sam Roberts
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