The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, shadowed by charges that it is in cahoots with the auto industry, plans to try to bring more sunlight into its auto safety research work with manufacturers.
"We're going to make some adjustments," NHTSA spokesman Richard E. Burdette said yesterday. "We don't believe the charges are correct. But we're certainly going to find a way to let everybody know what we're doing" in the testing program.
The conspiracy charges, which surfaced again at a House subcommittee hearing on small-car safety last week, stem from NHTSA's year-long work with the automakers in conducting side-impact crash tests on cars. The tests ultimately are supposed to produce new federal safety standards for doors and other structures that could protect passengers in some crashes.
The propriety of the joint testing arrangement originally was questioned by former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook in a report, "Reagan on the Road: The Crash of the U.S. Auto Safety Program," which was published last September.
Claybrook co-authored the report in her current job as president of Public Citizen, the Washington-based umbrella organization for various groups founded by Ralph Nader.
Claybrook said the Reagan administration's "secret work" with the automakers could bias the outcome of the tests in their favor. She also accused the Reagan administration of working with the automakers "in the secret handling of auto defect recalls and investigations, and the abandonment of information and education programs" about available auto safety technology.
Claybrook argued that the alleged conspiracy was an administration attempt to help the financially flattened automakers reduce their production costs and sell more cars.
The charges were denied by NHTSA administrator Raymond A. Peck Jr., who said at the time that Claybrook's report was "5 percent accurate, 100 percent predictable and 1,000 percent political."
Political or not, the charges caught the attention of Reps. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), chairman of the transportation, aviation and materials subcommittee, and Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), chairman of the investigations and oversight subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee. Glickman and Gore grilled Peck on the allegations at a joint subcommittee hearing last Friday. Peck again denied the charges, saying his agency simply was engaged in an information exchange with the automakers. But he conceded that the exchange could be mistaken for something sinister, and vowed to eliminate any appearances of impropriety.
NHTSA spokesman Burdette said yesterday that the agency was considering notifying interested parties about research-discussion meetings between NHTSA and auto industry representatives, and holding some of the meetings in cities outside Washington.
"We don't know exactly how it will be arranged. But we have to make sure that there is no shroud of secrecy over these meetings, and that we're not doing things in a way that, de facto, allows one party to influence our decisions," Burdette said.