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GM IS WINNER IN DEAL THAT AVOIDS RECALL

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General Motors Corp. is the clear winner in a deal that lifts the government's threat to recall millions of its pickup trucks in exchange for $51 million in GM support of safety programs.

Outraged consumer groups say motorists are losers, that dozens will die as a result. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, under attack now from people who cheered his initial recall proposal, says he made the only logical choice.That $51 million is a bargain for the world's largest industrial corporation - it took GM only about four days to clear that much in profit during the first nine months of this year.

By contrast, the annual research and development budget for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is less than $40 million.

The deal that Pena announced Friday ends the government's investigation of alleged defects in GM's 1973-87 C-K model pickups. Critics said the trucks are fire hazards in side-impact crashes because their fuel tanks are mounted outside the protection of the frame.

About 9 million of the trucks were sold in the United States with Chevrolet or GMC nameplates. About 5 million still are in use.

Perhaps most important for GM, the agreement withdraws Pena's Oct. 17 decision that the trucks were an unreasonable risk and that GM put sales ahead of safety.

Consumer groups that have campaigned for a recall since 1992 say the agreement was a sellout and they might sue to block it.

GM is "essentially bribing the bureaucratic staff that thinks it doesn't have enough money to spend," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen and a former NHTSA administrator.

"This settlement does nothing for the 5 million Americans who drive the pickups," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety.

GM will pay the money over several years to support safety research and education programs, and to buy child-safety seats for low-income families.