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CONSUMER PROTECTION IS A TIRELESS TASK

We should give a big hand to the Brits, whose protests over high gas prices are effectively shutting down their country -- and not just because their U.S. counterparts managed only to shut down a few highway entrances in favor of world peace. What's happening in Europe signals that we may be entering a new era of consumer activism. We can only hope.

The Firestone recall of 6.5 million defective tires . . . has underscored just how toothless and barkless our governmental watchdogs are when it comes to protecting consumers.

In the words of one expert witness during the recent Senate hearings on the Firestone case, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration "was caught flatfooted on the Firestone case because it rarely pushes companies to obey the law." The NHTSA not only ignored complaints and notifications that might have uncovered the Firestone problem earlier, but the Senate testimony outlined case after case where the agency didn't bother to have carmakers fix dangerous design flaws.

It was deregulation enacted by the Reagan administration that defanged governmental watchdogs. Since then, heavy corporate lobbying and huge political contributions have made sure Congress keeps the dogs both toothless and blind.

Where does that leave consumers? They're not only expected to keep spending their hard-earned dollars on products, but to not mind when they lose a few limbs, or family members, when those products prove unsafe. . . .

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