WASHINGTON -- As many as 5,000 Americans are scalded each year when they remove vehicle radiator caps while engines are hot.
But after 12 years of study, federal regulators have dropped their plan for a new rule that would require automakers to equip cars and trucks with safer radiator caps.
That reflects an effort by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to focus on initiatives with the greatest potential to save lives and prevent serious injuries.
NHTSA Administrator Dr. Jeffrey Runge says the impetus came from his boss, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. The secretary ordered agency heads in the Transportation Department to review every rule under consideration for five years or more. Either adopt it or drop it, Mineta said.
In the past, says NHTSA Associate Administrator Steve Kratzke, "Whenever someone had a good idea, we'd say, 'OK, that's a good idea,' and we'd put it on our plate. And, unfortunately, they would linger and linger."
In mid-2003, NHTSA had more than 130 active rule-making proceedings. The total has dropped to 84.
Industry executives say they appreciate getting a clearer picture of what matters most to regulators.
NHTSA is working to complete action on longstanding proposals that would strengthen vehicle roof supports, improve head restraints and require better rearview mirrors.
Some, such as proposals to limit glare from headlights and daytime running lights, had wide public support. Others were more arcane, such as proposed standards for light-emitting diodes in signal lamps.
NHTSA says it dropped some proposals that need more research, but it could revive them.
NHTSA officials say the number of scald injuries from radiator caps is far lower today than it was when the agency began considering a rule in the early 1990s. Automakers have improved designs to reduce the risk that hot coolant will spray motorists when they remove radiator caps, agency officials note.
Runge calls NHTSA's more-focused approach one of the successes of his tenure.
"By the time the new year rolls around, we will have a pretty clean backlog," Runge says. "I'm also very proud of that."
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