Safety's fallen asleep

Posted: Wednesday, September 20, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

The case in the news right now is the scandal involving blowouts of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. tires, now linked to 103 accident fatalities. But the spreading tire recall leads to a larger question: Just what kind of protection are American consumers getting from the federal regulatory agencies that are supposed to be looking out for their safety? The answers are not reassuring.

The Federal Aviation Administration, for instance, found that Northwest Airlines had operated a DC-9 jet in unsafe condition 74 times in July 1997. A cable had been improperly reinstalled after a repair, and pilots reported difficulty in landing the aircraft on three occasions. More than one year later, the FAA finally proposed a $375,000 fine against Northwest for violating maintenance procedures and wrongly returning the aircraft to service. The fine was large only by weak FAA standards. Using the airline's 1999 net profits as a gauge, it would take Northwest about 66 minutes of operating time to cover the fine.

The federal Office of Pipeline Safety is so weak and woefully inadequate that it has not been able to produce a map of the nation's underground pipelines in six years of work. Not even a pipeline rupture last year in Bellingham, Wash., that killed three people was enough to spur Congress to demand more regulatory clout, such as better tests to determine whether or not old pipelines are in weakened condition. Last month's 11 deaths in a natural gas pipeline accident in New Mexico may also fail to cause significant congressional change.

But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration stands in a dubious class all its own. NHTSA officials were aware in 1998 that the nation's largest auto insurer, State Farm, had detected a pattern of Firestone tire blowouts on certain sport-utility vehicles, including the Ford Explorer. NHTSA officials knew as early as mid-May that Ford had recalled the same Firestone models overseas last year. But it doesn't stop there.

The NHTSA has yet to take effective action on vehicle rollovers, which killed an estimated 10,133 people on U.S. roads last year. It has not substantively revised its standard for fuel tank safety in more than 25 years, despite the agency's own finding that the standard is ineffective. It has failed to upgrade its 30-year-old standard concerning head restraints and repeatedly, for decades, rejected appeals to install release latches in automobile trunks, moving only after a string of deaths involving children.

The Clinton administration asked Congress last week for authority to levy unlimited civil fines on auto makers and suppliers that fail to report safety problems to government regulators, but why stop with the automotive industry? Congress should greatly strengthen the federal government's regulatory hand, which is currently outweighed by corporate clout and campaign contributions.

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