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Active steps on passive restraints

For the second time in a month the federal government has taken a forward step to make American highways safer. Yesterday Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole announced the government would require that United States automakers begin phasing in passive restraints - air bags or automatic seat belts - in about two years, beginning with 1987 models.

In mid-June, President Reagan threw his support to a proposal to raise the nationwide drinking age to 21, in an effort to reduce drunken driving.

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Both moves represent welcome policy reversals for the administration, which is generally committed to reducing federal regulation.

The Dole announcement does not mean the passive-restraint controversy is totally settled. Although air bags get the most publicity, some specialists believe automatic seat belts offer better all-around protection. Further, it can be argued that the government should have phased in passive restraints faster than under the announced plan, which starts with only 10 percent of cars made the first year.

Another point of controversy: If enough states require drivers and passengers to wear seat belts so that two-thirds of Americans are covered, the federal government will rescind the new ruling.

In any case, Secretary Dole should be congratulated for having stood up to reported opposition from some White House staff members, who had wanted the passive-restraint provision scrapped.

The administration was under court directive to reaffirm the original Carter administration ruling for passive restraints, later reversed by this administration, or else provide evidence for changing the proposal.

The day before the Dole announcement, the government's Federal Trade Commission took a backward step in the area of autos and regulations. The FTC decided not to put into effect its previous proposal to make used-car dealers disclose known defects in their cars to prospective purchasers.

This, too, is a reversal: Three years ago the FTC adopted such a ruling, but did not enforce it when it was challenged in court by used-car dealers. Meantime , three new FTC commissioners, who prevailed in this week's vote, were appointed by the current administration.

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The FTC move has a high impact on lower-income Americans, proportionately the largest share of the used-car market. They spend a larger percentage of their salaries to buy and repair cars than do the affluent.

Requiring all dealers to disclose known defects would not have ensured that buyers were getting cars in perfect working order: Some major defects might have existed that dealers were unaware of. Yet the information would have been helpful; it is unfortunate that the FTC did not see fit to approve the proposal.

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