'Twas a time when car companies and their dealers swore that they could not sell safety. No longer. According to a new survey of Washington-area auto dealers, safety now ranks near the top of new-car buyers' shopping lists. Quality holds first place.

Of 227 Washington area dealers interviewed, 68 percent said buyers rated safety as one of their "most important" concerns in a new-car purchase, and another 28 percent said buyers saw safety as "fairly" important, according to a study that the Pennsylvania-based ICRSurvey Research Group did for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. By comparison, 57 percent of the surveyed dealers said their buyers considered price most important, with another 38 percent rating price "fairly important."

Quality, which also implies reliability, still tops buyers' concerns, said 81 percent of the dealers surveyed; 17 percent said their buyers regard it as "fairly important."

Fuel economy? With premium unleaded gasoline selling at less than $1.50 a gallon, Washington area residents seem to have forgotten the gas lines. Eleven percent of the dealers said their customers put fuel-economy at the top of their list of concerns. But performance and handling, the "go-fast" category, got "most important" nods from 44 percent of the buyers, dealers said.