WASHINGTON - Federal safety officials are counting on a big increase in funding so they can expand the information given to consumers about cars and trucks.
Ultimately, their plans could lead to a single, composite safety rating for each vehicle.
Officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration want to add ratings for brakes, lights and rollover propensity to the familiar five-star crash-test scores. They also want to crash more vehicles so that some can be evaluated for protection of small female adult dummies as well as the traditional mid-sized male adult dummies.
Accordingly, President Clinton last week asked Congress for a 36 percent increase in funding NHTSA, raising its budget to $499 million from $367 million.
The proposed NHTSA funding is part of Clinton's request for $55 billion in transportation spending for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. That would be a 9 percent increase. The total federal budget is $1.84 trillion, up 2.5 percent.
Acting NHTSA Administrator Rosalyn Millman declined to speculate about chances that lawmakers will approve a 36 percent boost for her agency, but she said increasing the information given to consumers is an urgent need.
NEW METHOD NEEDED
'The public is very demanding of that kind of information. They can't get enough of it,' she said.
Millman acknowledged, however, that NHTSA probably will have to develop new ways of presenting the data. Now, each vehicle gets as many as four crash-test scores - one each for the driver and passenger in both frontal and side impacts. Adding scores for female dummies, brakes, lights and rollover tendencies could be unwieldy.
Millman said that one option under consideration is to give each vehicle a composite safety score.
'We recognize that for it to be useful to the public, they must be able to understand it,' she said.
Regulators' attempts to rate vehicles for rollover propensity has been one of the most difficult issues between government and the industry for 30 years.
Details of NHTSA's latest plan are expected to be made public in the next few weeks, but carmakers say the effort is inherently flawed.
Industry safety engineers believe, for example, that 'no two rollovers are alike,' said Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
In addition, she said, ratings systems tend to synthesize complex information to the point that it is 'overly simplistic.'
Other budget items
Elsewhere in the budget, Clinton again proposed a tax on the investment income of trade associations.
Congress rejected the proposal last year, and the National Automobile Dealers Association will work to make sure it fails again this year, said Tom Greene, NADA's COO for legislative affairs.
Also during budget deliberations, NADA will seek to undo a tax change that was approved two years ago and is to take effect this year. For NADA it means that its for-profit subsidiary, which publishes used-car guides, can no longer deduct royalties paid to the nonprofit NADA.
The cost would be more than $1 million a year, Greene said.
Despite claims by congressional leaders and White House officials that they want a year of progress, Greene said he has doubts about how much will be accomplished in 2000, especially on tax measures.
With hotly contested presidential campaigns already under way, he said, 'There's going to be a lot of political posturing and rhetoric.'