These days, it`s the “R” word. Regulation. Get government off our backs, says an overburdened public. Here in Washington, Republicans and Democrats are competing to see who can best tame regulation-happy bureaucrats.

But it rarely takes long for the debate to dip into the details and for reasoned compromise to take hold. The public may hate overregulation, but survey after survey shows broad support for rules leading to cleaner air and water, safer workplaces and streets, and fairer treatment for the weak and helpless.

My guess is that time will show that the public is tired of the excessive, often stupid regulations produced–regrettably too often–by bureaucrats out-of-touch with the realities of earning a living at the end of the 20th century.

I also would guess that more reasonable and necessary regulations will be increasingly common in coming years–proposed and adopted by smaller, smarter, better-informed public agencies. Case in point: At the urging of the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM), the Federal Highway Administration (FHwA) may soon reverse a regulatory mistake it made some 20 years ago.

In 1975–before national fire statistics were collected, much less used in setting government policy–the trucking industry persuaded the FHwA to exempt lightweight vehicles operated by motor carriers from fire safety regulations requiring portable fire extinguishers. Under their definitions, a lightweight vehicle is one with a gross vehicle weight rating of less than 10,000 pounds or a passenger capacity of fewer than 15 persons. Most small passenger vans operated by schools, recreation centers, nursing homes, and the like would be exempt. In other words, it has been the federal law that businesses and institutions transporting the most vulnerable groups of people–senior citizens and children–shall be the least prepared for a fire.

The exemption hardly bears serious scrutiny, and it has certainly never had any–until now. With the attention of several proactive members of Congress focused on them–including Curt Weldon, Fire Caucus Chairman Sherwood Boehlert of New York, and Massachusetts Representative Gerry Studds–FHwA has finally announced, 20 years later, that it intends to “carefully review” the data on lightweight vehicle fires.

Now that they are looking, there are plenty of data. The National Fire Protection Association statistics report about 25,000 fires annually involving lightweight trucks. This hardly makes them candidates for exemption from any fire safety standards.

Although the climate in Washington is antiregulation, this standard is likely to be reestablished because it is reasonable and because it deals with a well-documented, real-world problem.

Federal regulation is not dead. In fact, it may be returning to good health for the first time in years.

At least, fire officials had better hope so. Regulation–the enforcement of fire safety standards for businesses, buildings, and consumer products–is an essential element of fire prevention. If regulation is dead, so is fire prevention. n

PETER G. SPARBER has been in public and government relations for more than 20 years and owns and operates the public affairs consulting firm Sparber and Associates, Inc., in Washington, D.C. He works closely with the National Volunteer Fire Council, the National Association of State Fire Marshals, and many state fire groups. He regularly addresses fire service groups on political and marketing subjects.

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