BY RELAXING some of the automobile regulations, the Reagan administration is offering the right kind of help to an industry in trouble. The government has given away nothing important to health and safety. Some of the abandoned regulations were marginal, and some were the sort that bring regulation into disrepute. Do you really think that federal law ought to require a tire pressure indicator on the dashboard?If drivers want to save a little money, ought they not have the option of simply looking at the tires?
There's to be a year's delay in the rule requiring automatic devices to protect people in head-on crashes. That would mean the famous air bag or, for most cars, self-locking seat belts. The whole reason for the rule was to force safety onto those people who refuse to buckle their present seat belts. In auto safety, the government's responsibility is clearest in those matters that buyers and drivers cannot possibly judge for themselves. One example is the car's gasoline tank, and whether it will repture in a collision. But where a driver is offered protection like a seat belt, and voluntarily rejects it, the government's duty to impose it willy-nilly is less obvious.
The basic health and safety standards for the automobile industry have been set by Congress, and only Congress can change them. Within limits that Congress has established, the administration has now slightly loosened some of the auto exhaust pollution requirements. Almost everywhere, air quality will continue to improve as more of the new and cleaner cars come onto the road each year. Ten years' experience with automobile pollution leads to a general conclusion that the present set of rules is probably tighter than it needs to be. The administration's decisions here do not signal a retreat from the national commitment to cleaner air.
The consideration of these regulations has a certain relationship to the maneuvering over Japanese imports. Quotas on imports would be a disastrous mistake, and, to its credit, the White House seems deeply reluctant to move in that direction. By far the wisest policy -- and the best for the industry -- is to keep competition open but, at the some time, get rid of those rules that can be lifted without jeopardizing the public's health and safety. That, so far, is what the Reagan administration seems to be doing.