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Industry, U.S. balk at device to shield people from exploding car batteries

By Jack Anderson and Dale Van Atta

WASHINGTON - C.J. Abraham of Mineola, N.Y., has an invention that could make him some money. But his fight to get that invention accepted by the federal government has taken him beyond money to principle. He would not be the only one to benefit if the government forced the auto industry to use Abraham's patented shield that protects people from exploding car batteries.

Abraham's story could be echoed by scores of inventors and researchers who have something that will ease pain and suffering, but not enough pain and suffering to justify the cost.

Abraham estimates that there are upward of 7,000 injuries from exploding auto batteries every year. The federal government puts the number at 5,000, but only about 120 of them require hospitalization, and that, apparently, is not enough to warrant mandatory battery shields.

No one seems interested in Abraham's shield that would be attached to car batteries. He approached major battery manufacturers, but none wanted it. So he went to Washington, hoping that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would require the shield or a similar precaution. The agency turned him down last year.

It's not that the government doesn't recognize the problem or the value of Abraham's solution. But NHTSA says the amount and degree of the injuries from exploding car batteries don't justify the shield, even if it works.

"Here we found a problem that was not real big in the grand scheme of things," Barry Felrice, NHTSA's chief rule-maker told our associate Dan Njegomir.

A bitter and wiser Abraham counters, "Blindness, to them, is not severe."

Thanks in part to a letter of support from Rep. Thomas Luken, D-Ohio, Abraham got another shot at tightening safety regulations. NHTSA reopened the issue and will rule on it this summer after taking public comment. Most of the responses are coming from battery makers opposed to Abraham's invention and any rule that would require it.

The federal regulators insist that if the problem were widespread enough and the solution effective enough, they might consider requiring battery shields. But instead NHTSA points to what it says is a gradual decline in the number of injuries. Relatively few of the spontaneous explosions are serious, the government says. And NHTSA believes the addition of Abraham's shield would make batteries harder to service.

The bottom line is that NHTSA thinks the shields cost too much for the benefit. The agency estimates consumers would spend $94 million a year on the shields if they were required. Felrice called that "way out of scale for our rule-making" given the limited return.

Yet Felrice admitted that the invention would make a difference. "Some of these injuries can be severe," he said. "You might reduce several hundred, a thousand if this thing worked, for $94 million a year."

Abraham thinks the cost would be much lower. He says he and his partner would get the price down to 39 cents per shield.

But he is skeptical that he will have the chance. He doesn't expect a favorable ruling, much less a fair hearing, from NHTSA. Like many inventors stymied by the system, he half suspects there is a conspiracy to keep his product off the market.

At the very least, there is numbing bureaucratic indifference. When NHTSA ruled against him last year, it gave him the same explanation as it did in 1981. That was the year that NHTSA declined to set new rules after the Consumer Product Safety Commission asked for an inquiry into battery safety.

Abraham said he wouldn't be surprised if he saw the same ruling again this time around.

Copyright, 1990. United Feature Syndicate, Inc.