A House subcommittee has voted to withdraw $7.5 million from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's national "seatbelt education program," Capitol Hill sources said yesterday.
The vote came Thursday night in a closed meeting of the House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on transportation, which is writing a NHTSA spending bill.
The full committee is expected to consider the subcommittee's action within two weeks, sources said.
NHTSA is seeking $80 million over the next four years to encourage the use of seatbelts by the nation's drivers. But the agency so far has been allowed to spend only $2.5 million of the $20 million it said it needs for fiscal 1985.
The $2.5 million is for planning. The subcommittee had approved a continuing resolution authorizing the agency to spend $10 million this year in its seatbelt promotion efforts. But the subcommittee said that $7.5 million of that amount would not be released until the Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over NHTSA, explained in detail how the additional money would be used.
At issue is whether NHTSA's seatbelt campaign is designed, either by intent or through inherent flaws, to undermine a DOT rule requiring the installation of automatic safety restraints in all new cars sold in the United States beginning Sept. 1, 1989.
The rule, published by DOT last July, has a major escape clause. It gives states the option of approving laws that would require all drivers within their borders to wear traditional seatbelts -- the manual type -- when their cars are in motion.
If states having two-thirds of the nation's population pass mandatory-use laws by Sept. 1, 1989, auto makers will be exempt from installing automatic restraint systems in their new cars built after that date. Until then, beginning in 1986, manufacturers are required to build certain percentages of their cars with automatic restraints.
So far, seven states -- New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico and Indiana -- have passed mandatory use laws. But critics of those laws say that the state statutes do not meet DOT's criteria for effectiveness.
Chief among those critics is Rep. William Lehman (D-Fla.), chairman of the House transportation subcommittee. Lehman last April 3 wrote Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, warning her that NHTSA's seatbelt program would receive no additional funding until Dole satisfied the subcommittee's concerns that the program would not do away with automatic restraints.
Congressional sources said that Dole responded to Lehman May 2 -- "a two-page letter followed by four pages of answers that meandered all over the place without answering anything," one source said. The subcommittee's decision to withdraw the $7.5 million was a response to that letter, the source said.
DOT and NHTSA officials said yesterday that they had received no official notification of the subcommittee's actions.
The NHTSA spokesman said the mandatory seatbelt law already is showing "clear benefits" in New York where, he said, "there has been a 27 percent reduction in [traffic] fatalities in the first three months that the law has been in effect."