Senators Scorn Federal Safety Department

US Senators at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing today scolded Bush administration officials over suspected interference with the federal government's safety investigators in Washington hearings June 4. White House officials were pushing a plan to "upgrade" roof strength safety standards when Senators apparently figured out that the real plan was to curb future lawsuits by people whose vehicle roofs collapse in rollover crashes.

The initial plan was said to be to "upgrade" the federal roof strength standards but Senators found a provision in the plan that would severely limit lawsuit damages for people who might be injured or killed by collapsing roofs if the new "upgraded" standards were adopted.

So when is an upgrade not really an upgrade? Apparently whenever federal safety investigators get into bed with big business interests. It's high time we got politics out of the safety process, folks.

Even the auto manufacturers trade group, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, reportedly said they were surprised to see the lawsuit loophole buried in the proposal's fine print. Of course, they were pleased as punch to see it. Just surprised, they said.

As it is now, roof strength standards haven't changed since 1971. Congress had long ago imposed a deadline of July 1, 2008 to improve the standards but federal safety officials at NHTSA (the federal safety agency in charge of automobile recalls) still have not gotten it done.

Industry insiders say that improving roof rollover crash safety would mean adding weight to the vehicle and that might make it tougher to meet the new fuel economy standards that come due in 2020. Come on, guys, fix the roofs now and you still have 12 years to fix the fuel economy. Who's kidding who here?

Meanwhile, long time consumer advocate Ralph Nader says that cozy ties between automakers and safety officials and the White House have gotten so bad that Congress should just shut down the regulators and start all over again with a new safety department that has teeth and is willing to use them.

Of course, that'll never happen. But there's no doubt Nader is right about the cozy relationship. Federal safety investigators need to get out of the manufacturer's bed and start enforcing safety laws again like they were meant to be enforced. You and I are the ones who ride in these cars with lousy roof standards. We don't need politicians deciding how strong the roof in your car should be.

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