Social Security checks to stop coming by mail

Posted April 15, 2012, at 9:50 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Starting next year, the check will no longer be in the mail for millions of people who receive Social Security and other government benefits.

The federal government, which issues 73 million payments a month, is phasing out paper checks for all benefit programs, requiring people to get payments electronically, either through direct deposit or a debit card for those without a bank account.

The changes will affect people who get Social Security, veterans’ benefits, railroad pensions and federal disability payments. Tax refunds are exempt, but the Internal Revenue Service encourages taxpayers to get refunds electronically by processing those refunds faster than paper checks.

About 90 percent of people who receive federal benefits already get their payments electronically, the Treasury Department says. New beneficiaries were required to get payments electronically starting last year, and with a few exceptions, the rest will have to make the switch by March 2013.

Walt Henderson, director of the Treasury Department’s electronic funds transfer division, said electronic payments are safer and more efficient than paper checks; in 2010, more than 540,000 federal benefit checks were reported lost or stolen. The switch will save the government about $120 million a year. Social Security will save $1 billion over the next decade, according to the Treasury Department.

Women more likely to mistake gas pedal for brakes, report says

LOS ANGELES — Women are more likely than men to mistake the gas pedal for the brakes, according to federal safety regulators.

But before all those male drivers out there smugly stereotyping women as bad drivers, men are more likely to be involved in an accident, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.

“The most consistent finding across data sources was the striking overrepresentation of females in pedal misapplication crashes, relative to their involvement in all types of crashes,” the agency said in a report supporting its proposal this week to require automakers to make brake-throttle override systems standard in all vehicles.

The override systems help drivers regain control when a vehicle accelerates suddenly. Analysts say the override will help stop many instances of sudden acceleration but aren’t likely to prevent people from careening out of control when they step on the wrong pedal.

NHTSA estimates there are about 15 pedal misapplication crashes per month in the United States, and that the drivers in almost two-thirds of such crashes were women.

The agency speculated on several reasons why women might be more likely to be involved in such crashes.

The incidents occur most often in parking lots, NHTSA said. Could it be all those trips to the shopping mall? NHTSA didn’t elaborate except to say most of these crashes are occurring in “commercial parking lots.”

The agency also noted that women typically have “a poorer fit in their cars due to shorter stature, which may increase the likelihood of a pedal application error.”

Other NHTSA data show that men were involved in 57 percent of all types of crashes whilewomen were involved in 46 percent. Additionally, male drivers are three times as likely as female drivers to be killed in a crash.

US officials encouraged by day of Iran talks

ISTANBUL — Western diplomats claimed modest progress Saturday after more than 10 hours of talks with Iranian officials, raising hopes for at least a temporary easing of a nuclear crisis that has fueled fears of a new military conflict in the Middle East.

The day-long talks at an Istanbul conference center did not yield an agreement on specific curbs to Iran’s nuclear program, but U.S. and European officials described the negotiations as “constructive and useful” and said a second round had been set for May 23 in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

“We want now to move to a sustained process of serious dialogue,” said Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief and lead negotiator for a bloc of six world powers engaged in the first direct nuclear talks with Iran since January 2011.

A senior U.S. official described the tone of the discussions as encouraging but stressed the need for rapid progress on steps to ease concerns about Iran’s nuclear intentions.

“While the atmosphere today was positive, and good enough to merit a second round, there is urgency for concrete progress, and the window for diplomatic action is closing,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe diplomatic deliberations. The official added that there were no expectations for immediately lifting sanctions against Iran.

The chief Iranian representative, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Saeed Jalili, called the talks a “success” and said he believed the atmosphere was now conducive to progress.

Israel nabs fly-in activists at airport

JERUSALEM — Israel detained dozens of international activists as they landed at its main airport on Sunday, preventing them from entering the country to participate in a planned solidarity mission with Palestinians in the West Bank.

Israel said the activists, part of an umbrella group called “Welcome to Palestine,” were provocateurs who posed a security threat. But organizers said the event, meant to draw attention to Israeli travel restrictions on Palestinians, was nonviolent, and they accused Israel of using heavy-handed tactics to stamp out legitimate protest.

Israel is jittery about the prospect of a large influx of foreign protesters arriving because of deadly confrontations with pro-Palestinian activists in the past. In the worst instance, Israeli naval commandos clashed with activists on board a flotilla trying to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip in May 2010, killing nine activists.

By early evening, the Interior Ministry said a total of 49 people had been stopped at the airport, most on flights from France, but also from Spain, Switzerland, Canada, Italy and Portugal. At least 12 were placed on flights back home, while arrangements were being made to expel the others.

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