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Consumer advocate Ralph Nader today rejected the auto industry's...

By FRANK CSONGOS

WASHINGTON -- Consumer advocate Ralph Nader today rejected the auto industry's idea of a law to require seat belt use, saying it would not work any better than Prohibition.

Nader also dismissed government hearings on auto safety measures as meaningless unless President Reagan supports them.

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Testifying on the second day of a hearing before the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Nader accused car makers of proposing a seat belt law to get out of installing more sophisticated safety equipment, such as air bags or self-closing seat belts.

The safety agency is holding three days of hearing in Washington on whether to require new cars be built with air bags, which inflate automatically in a crash, or seat belts that automatically lock in place when a car door is closed.

Nader urged the agency to call for air bags, which he said are even better than seat belts in preventing injuries in crashes. But earlier he said the issue is really up to President Reagan.

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'This 13-year-old ritual is not going to produce anything unless Ronald Reagan is interested in saving lives,' Nader said in a telephone interview.

'The Transportation Department has no power in this matter,' he said. 'It's completely up to Reagan and he has tried to kill the air bags already. The hearings are a charade.'

Nader told the hearing that trying to require millions of drivers to buckle up, as the auto industry suggests, will not work because of a 'refusal of large number of people to comply with such behavior control laws. We learned that in Prohibition.'

Nader said that if the government refuses to order more sophisticated safety equipment in new cars, Congress should pass a law requiring the equipment.

Seat belts are required by federal law in all 1968 and later passenger cars -- an estimated 140 million vehicles -- but statistics indicate 85 percent of all drivers and passengers do not use them regularly.

Last year highway accidents killed 44,000 people. Experts say thousands of the victims would have survived with air bags or by using seat belts.

'Why do we have to have a major controversy over saving lives?' Nader said.

During the first day of hearings in Washington Monday, auto officials called for laws to require drivers and passengers to use their seat belts instead of requiring more sophisticated equipment in new cars to protect those who refuse to buckle up.

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Dale Dawkins, vice president of American Motors Corp., argued car makers should not be forced to install air bags or automatic seat belts.

Dawkins, who heads the company's environmental and safety affairs department, called for a $40 million program funded by industry and government to encourage safety belt usage and for legislation to make use of seat belts mandatory.

Harold Sperlich, president of Chrysler's North American automotive operations, said laws mandating seat belt use would save more than 52,000 lives during the time it would take to begin installing air bags or self-closing belts in new cars.

But James Corcoran, a top official of the New York State Insurance Department, urged the highway safety board to adopt a rule requiring the new safety equipment in future models. He said the equipment would save lives, reduce hospital costs and cut insurance premiums.

Corcoran said the administration has no 'rational basis' to rescind rules approved under President Carter that would require air bags or automatic seat belts in new automobiles.

The Reagan administration tried to kill the requirement in 1981, but the Supreme Court ruled it was done improperly and directed the government to take another look at the issue.

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