Automakers Working Behind the Scenes to Block Much-Needed Auto Safety Reforms

Sept. 26, 2000

Automakers Working Behind the Scenes to Block Much-Needed Auto Safety Reforms

Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook


I have bad news today. It appears the auto industry is well on its way to deleting meaningful criminal penalty provisions from the auto safety legislation that is expected to reach the Senate floor within the week and will be marked up in the House Commerce subcommittee tomorrow.

In 1986, Ford’s top strategy committee was proudly told how its company’s lobbyists succeeded in eliminating criminal provisions from a safety bill that subsequently died. I stand here today with a group of individuals who have either suffered serious injury or lost loved ones because of defective Firestone tires on Ford Explorers. These citizens are casualties in a war that continues to be fought for accountability, including criminal accountability. If the auto industry is again allowed to lobby itself out from under these criminal provisions, it is very likely that we will be standing right here in another 14 years with yet more casualties from another, similar debacle. The citizens of this country are entitled to more from Congress, and we are sorely disappointed in the lack of resolve shown by our elected officials in the face of mounting evidence of active concealment on the part of Ford and Firestone — concealment documented by the congressional committees.

The Senate and House committees have had their public show. Now the insider game is being played, the piecing together of legislation. This is where the rubber hits the road.

For the first time since 1974, Congress is moving legislation to enhance the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s authority to enforce the law. This year, because of the massive publicity surrounding the Firestone recall and the role of Firestone and Ford in covering up this defect, the automakers face public demand for reforms. But they are working furiously behind the scenes to mold the legislation to their liking. They have brought in the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers to help.

Strong legislation is needed because in the past, some of the same members who are now trying to scuttle strong legislation — including Representatives John Dingell and Michael Oxley — have repeatedly badgered the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to cut back its enforcement. As a result of these attacks, the agency has developed an unbelievably complex investigation process, a maze of bureaucratic procedures that can take 18 months to complete regardless of how deadly a defect is.

Now the manufacturers are trying to burden the agency with even more bureaucratic procedures in an effort to monkey wrench the system — to stall, to delay, to impede enforcement.

Americans expect and deserve a strong auto safety agency. The provisions that we are seeking will save lives and ensure that if automakers or their suppliers engage in coverups, they will pay a heavy price. They are nothing more than routine law enforcement reforms that should be enacted immediately.

These are not punitive measures. They are simply bringing NHTSA up to speed with other federal agencies. Virtually every other regulatory agency — OSHA, EPA, the FAA, for example — has statutes that contain criminal penalties. There is nothing unusual about that. Civil dollar penalties alone are not enough, as we have seen most clearly in this case. NHTSA’s civil penalties are a joke. The current maximum fine of $925,000 will not deter a major multinational corporation from wrongdoing. If executives face the specter of jail time, they will think long and hard before putting profits over the safety of their customers.

Some provisions already have been stripped outright from the bill.

They include a requirement that manufacturers give DOT an early warning if they have reason to believe a product is defective. That’s just common sense. But it’s gone.

Another measure that is no longer in the Senate bill would require used car dealers to inform purchasers of a safety defect or repair it before sale. Again, common sense. But it’s gone.

Allowing DOT to impose civil penalties through an administrative law judge, like other agencies do, so they don’t have to go to court, is just common sense. But it’s gone.

The criminal penalties provision has been watered down so that it only applies if a vehicle was known to be defective when first sold, not if the defect was discovered later and covered up, as in the Firestone case. That’s a loophole large enough to drive an Explorer through.

It is unfathomable to me that Congress would enact powerful federal penalties for criminal offenders and drug kingpins but allow automobile companies to get away with slaps on the wrist when their deliberate actions result in death and injury to their customers.

Virtually every American relies on automobiles in some fashion. With hundreds of millions of lives at stake every day on our highways, we need an agency with the authority to ensure our vehicles are safe. When the auto lobbyists come calling, senators and representatives should remember the faces of tragedy and suffering, the innocent victims of corporate arrogance whose pain and trauma will last forever.


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