Originally created 02/23/98

Things you can learn from a dummy



You know, sometimes even a dummy can be a source of important information.

I'm not much for clicking on those banner ads that litter the Net, but recently I was intrigued enough to click on one that carried a message to that effect. Lucky I did. It may have saved my life.

The dummy in question was a crash-test dummy, one of a comic pair named Larry and Vince who show up from time to time on television in amusing but deadly serious public service ads from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Clicking that banner took me to the new NHTSA Web site.

The NHTSA describes its site as an online handbook, but that unfortunately implies something considerably less substantial than the vast wealth of information found here.

The NHTSA site is not only impressive for its scale, but for its extreme accessibility. Like the Internal Revenue Service's site, it represents an example of the Internet allowing a seemingly faceless and remote part of the federal bureaucracy to become a lot more user-friendly for average citizens. The site wraps a colorful package around a lot of very black and white material. Or, as the NHTSA's chief administrator, Ricardo Martinez, sounding distinctly unlike a bureaucrat, says in his welcoming message: "There's a lot of good stuff here, and we keep making it better all the time."

Established by the Highway Safety Act of 1970, the NHTSA is responsible for reducing deaths, injuries and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes. It does this by doing research that results in the setting of safety-performance standards and development of safety programs.

The site's features are too many to list here, but you'll find information ranging from crash-test results to community outreach programs. A colorful toolbar at the bottom of the screen, designed like a car's dashboard, helps you locate the site's main sections. Click on Larry and Vince for a section of fun and informative features for kids.

Of particular value are searchable databases of recall notices, technical service bulletins and consumer complaints. Plugging in the specifics on my car yielded a couple of fascinating details unknown to me when I purchased it used a few years ago. Not only does it have a propensity for suddenly losing a wheel, but a problem in the fuel system could result in an engine fire. Hmm! (I'll be visiting my mechanic real soon.) If you suspect an as-yet-unreported defect in your car, it also provides a way you can report it.

Clicking What's Hot brings up the NHTSA's recent headline-making report on the dangers of mixing cars and cell phones. This immediately brought to mind the woman I had seen in my rearview mirror behind me on the way to work that morning: talking on a cellphone, one hand on the phone, the other in her hair, her eyes fixed on her own rearview mirror. I wondered who was driving. Apparently, no one, as she proceeded to drive through a red light.

Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service