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Has Automobile Safety Taken a Back Seat Again?

December 24, 1996|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Ralph Nader thrust auto safety into a national issue in the 1960s with his book "Unsafe at Any Speed," it looked like political pressure had reach such a level that the federal government would never dare retreat on improving automobile safety equipment.

But Nader, who ran for president this year, is charging that the Clinton administration has seriously backtracked on auto safety--caving in to the interests of auto makers and commercial truckers.

President Clinton "is a cowardly president scared out of his wits" by special interests, Nader charged in an interview. A Clinton representative dismissed those words, saying they come from a person who lost a presidential race.

But apart from the heated rhetoric, Nader has published a lengthy report, entitled "Driving in Reserve," documenting what he calls a major decline in federal efforts to improve safety.

Nader points to the refusal of the Clinton administration to issue a safety recall on some General Motors pickup trucks because of their side-saddle fuel tanks, the exemption of heavy commercial trucks from new safety rules, and the administration's support of increases in highway speed limits.

The report details a lengthy list of safety improvements that Clinton political appointees have declined to adopt any time soon, including: the requirement for side-impact head-injury air bags; upgrading roof standards; issuing a standard on vehicle rollovers, which are blamed for 8,500 deaths per year; and rules on eliminating sharp points and edges that contribute to 5,500 pedestrian deaths per year.

The Transportation Department sees things differently, contending that auto safety has taken a giant leap forward and will continue to improve. Highway deaths in 1995 were down to 1.7 per hundred million miles, compared to 5.5 in 1966, when Nader wrote his first book.

Transportation spokesman Bill Schulz said the agency has issued the two largest auto recalls in history, set new anti-lock brake standards for trucks and issued new head protection standards, all in the last four years.

"Our automobiles are safer than ever, and we are proud that our roads are among the safest in the world," he said.

But the Nader report alleges that the Clinton administration has proposed cutting more than a dozen safety standards, four of which have already been rescinded. Those include rules that prohibit materials that cause glare and sharp points on hubcaps.

Nader blames Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, National Highway Transportation Safety Administrator Ricardo Martinez and Federal Highway Administrator Rodney Slater.

"Having betrayed their oaths of office again and again . . . Pena, Slater and Martinez prostrated themselves in ignominious kowtows before a resurgently reactionary mega-industry lobby that itself is oblivious to shame, guilt or disgrace," the report charges in classic Nader style.

* Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W. #1100, Washington, D.C. 20006 or e-mail to Ralph.Vartabedian@latimes.com.

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