Highway safety director Raymond Peck yesterday denied a House subcommittee chairman's charges that he has defied congressional directives by terminating major safety regulations.
Peck said his agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was committed to increasing the voluntary use of safety belts by motorists rather than "going for the quick, elusive and very expensive hardware solutions" pursued by his predecessors.
Rep. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.), chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications, consumer protection and finance, sparred with Peck, interrupting his answers, accusing him of "filibustering," and ridiculing Peck's detailed description of management changes at the NHTSA as "mind-control stuff."
"I hear what you're not doing," Wirth said. "I'd like to know, for the record, right now, what have you done, one, two, three, four, five?"
Peck, who maintained a low-key composure through most of the morning hearing, snapped back at this salvo, protesting that Wirth was misstating the responsibilities of the NHTSA administrator.
Although the law requires him to increase auto safety by regulating car manufacturers, it also requires that regulations be "reasonable, appropriate and lead to highway safety," Peck said.
He insisted that, in terminating a rule requiring installation of automatic seat belts or air bags in new cars and moving against other proposed safety measures, he has followed that directive.
Pressed to spell out what the administration would do to increase safety, Peck emphasized his publicity campaign to increase seat-belt usage, saying that studies show that 14,000 lives could be saved every year if the campaign succeeds.
He and Wirth traded conflicting claims about the success of past efforts at educating motorists to use safety belts.
Peck got a friendlier reception from Rep. James M. Collins (R-Tex.), the subcommittee's ranking Republican. "I am pleased there has been a change in direction at NHTSA," Collins said. "This industry is really hurting, and the last thing they need are more headaches out of Washington," he said, referring to the U.S. automakers.
Peck and Wirth later quarreled over the extent of the regulatory headaches, with Wirth citing NHTSA estimates that all the safety regulations thus far have required only $9 a car in extra capital investment by the auto companies. Peck said this figure doesn't include the $350 in extra materials costs due to federal safety standards that have been added to the price of a typical 1981 car.