His daughter, Dianne Simpson Tuohy, confirmed his death but did not cite a cause.
Established by an act of Congress in 1972, the commission was greeted harshly by pro-business groups and conservatives. Syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick compared the CPSC to Dr. Frankenstein.
“You’ve got so much power here it’s really unbelievable,” Rep. Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.) told Mr. Simpson during a budget hearing. “You’ve got life-or-death over whether consumers have anything to consume.”
Mr. Simpson, an electrical engineer who led the CPSC from its founding until 1975, acknowledged that the agency had a “frightening amount of authority.” But he told Whitten, “Our mission isn’t to eliminate all risk, but all unreasonable risk.”
He wasn’t pro-consumer or pro-business, he said. He labeled himself “pro in-the-reduction of risk.”
“If you tried to build every house so it couldn’t burn, you might well triple the cost — and you might not want to live in it,” Mr. Simpson told the Christian Science Monitor.
Balancing costs while protecting consumers was a constant juggling act for Mr. Simpson.
When his agency began enforcing a rule requiring that mattresses be made from materials that wouldn’t ignite from lit cigarettes, manufacturers rebelled. “It is unfair that government has placed such a heavy burden on our industry because of a problem caused by careless cigarette smokers,” the National Association of Bedding Manufacturers said in a statement. The rule stood.
With tricycles, Mr. Simpson said the commission considered expensive safety changes and even an outright ban before considering simpler solutions, such as removing the rear step allowing children to take their friends on rides.
“If the commission had priced tricycles out of reach of most consumers by setting more stringent safety standards, they might find other products that are even more hazardous,” he told the Medill News Service in 1976. “And if we had banned tricycles, children might have learned on bicycles first, which are even more dangerous.”
One rule enacted during Mr. Simpson’s tenure — mandatory child-safety caps on medicine bottles — might have saved his family a trip to the hospital had it been in effect when two of his children, while playing doctor, consumed a bottle of candy-flavored aspirin. They both had their stomachs pumped.
The sixth of nine children, Richard Olin Simpson was born into an impoverished family in Independence, Mo., on March 7, 1930.
After becoming the first in his family to graduate from high school, he served in the Navy and studied electrical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1956, took graduate courses in engineering at Stanford and briefly studied law at UC Berkeley.
Working at the Rucker Co., then based in Oakland, Calif., he designed the first ground fault interrupter, a device for electrical systems that protects against electrocution.
Mr. Simpson joined the Commerce Department in 1969, working on product safety. He was acting assistant commerce secretary for science and technology when President Richard M. Nixon appointed him to head the new commission. He ran the agency like a “goldfish bowl,” as he put it, making all meetings — even informal staff discussions — open to the public.
“It’s one of the most valuable things we’ve done,” he told the Media General News Service. “It’s something new for a regulatory agency, and some people don’t like it, but we feel that it gives the public and the manufacturers more confidence in us.”
Though colleagues described him as soft-spoken, Mr. Simpson was a force around Washington. In his 2016 autobiography, “The Quest for Safer Products,” he recalled the time that Morton Mintz, a Washington Post investigative reporter, left him a message about a story he was working on about the Flammable Fabrics Act.
Mr. Simpson’s then-boss, Commerce Secretary Maurice Stans, was concerned about negative press coverage. Mr. Simpson was unable to reach Mintz by phone.
“On a hunch, I decided to go to the Washington Post offices and see if he was there,” Mr. Simpson wrote. It was a Saturday. “He was not in but was expected later. I found a seat near his desk and waited about three hours for his return. He was surprised and not pleased to see me.”
They talked for 20 minutes, and Mintz said he’d check out what Mr. Simpson told him.
“We departed with ill feelings,” Mr. Simpson wrote. “Mintz called me at home around midnight Sunday. He told me his checks on my tale proved that his story was wrong.”
Mintz scrapped his reporting, according to Mr. Simpson, and started over on the story. (Mintz, who is 101, said in a phone interview that he didn’t recall the episode.)
Mr. Simpson left the CPSC in 1975 because of frustration with a White House delay in announcing whether he would be reappointed. He returned to private sector work. Mr. Simpson later advocated for disbanding the commission, arguing that it had served its purpose — bringing increased attention to product safety, including media coverage of companies whose products injured consumers. He thought the product industry would better police itself, saving the government the costs of running a sprawling agency.
His wife of 53 years, the former Patricia Ann Kramer, died in 2003. In addition to his daughter Dianne, of San Diego, survivors include four other children, Rick Simpson of Sacramento; Karen Simpson Tweedie of DeLand, Fla.; Dave Simpson of Santa Clarita, Calif.; and Norma Simpson Bufford of Foster City, Calif.; 13 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
His family often called him the “the safety Tsar.” One year, for his birthday, Mr. Simpson’s wife gave him a card with his present pasted inside: a toothpick.
The ends were wrapped in cotton.
“Your birthday gift,” the card said, “has been approved by the U.S. Safety Commission.”