Calm, Prudence on Y2K

For those wondering just how big the Y2K problem will be, the news is reassuring.

The problem stems from older computers and programs that use two digits for years in dates. Unable to distinguish between 2000 and 1900, the concern is that they will malfunction or shut down, affecting vital services such as electric and water utilities, air travel, and banking.

Some recent events and findings that lend perspective to this issue:

*Rep. Stephen Horn (R) of California, the House Y2K watchdog, gave 24 federal agencies a B minus grade for preparedness. He found the National Weather Service and Social Security Administration ready for next year and pronounced the government "in pretty good shape." But there's still work to do.

*The 46 states and several local governments that began their fiscal year 2000 on July 1 met with few problems processing bills and payrolls for the new year.

*US and Canadian airlines announced last week they are 95 percent prepared for 2000 and will be completely ready by the end of summer. The Federal Aviation Administration said it had repaired and tested its air-traffic computers by June 30. Government auditors are verifying.

The situation at airports, whether in the US or abroad, is less clear. The UN's International Civil Aviation Organization is collecting airport and airline data. The State Department may begin issuing travel warnings this fall for areas to avoid.

Prudence, not panic, is the order of the day. Citizens should insist that local governments address the problem, and they should be sure their home computers and software are Y2K compliant. But other than preparing as one would for a bad winter storm or a hurricane, and printing out hard copies of personal and financial records, no drastic action is called for.

Certainly individuals should not take such unwise actions as cashing out bank accounts, selling stocks, or other "survivalist" behavior. Carrying around huge amounts of cash is far more dangerous than anything the so-called "millennium bug" is likely to cause.

Meanwhile, President Clinton is ready to sign a bill hammered out with Congress that will head off frivolous Y2K lawsuits. It gives companies 90 days to fix computers that break down because of the Y2K glitch, encourages mediation of disputes, caps punitive damages for small businesses, and limits class-action lawsuits.

This bill strikes a good balance between the interests of consumers, who will still have reasonable recourse, and those of the high-tech industry.

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