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Congress Should Fix Weak Auto Safety Law

Nov. 1, 2000

Congress Should Fix Weak Auto Safety Law

Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook

Despite what proponents claim, the new auto safety law signed today by President Clinton will not help consumers as much as it should, and we strongly urge Congress to amend it. Touted as both a safety-enhancing measure and a cure-all for the ills affecting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the new law is merely a first step in this direction. It still needs work.

We need a law that will ensure a free flow of safety information to consumers. We have previously opposed the information provision in this measure because it would allow for critical safety data to be withheld from consumers. We appreciate DOT s new interpretation that this safety data should be public, and we are pleased that the president emphasized this point. Still, the law needs to be clarified to reflect DOT s interpretation, and we urge Congress to promptly make the needed changes.

The bottom line is that if you walk around this law and kick its tires, you ll find that it has flashy fenders and shiny paint but is plagued with engine troubles. The measure provides no new criminal enforcement authority. Instead, it has a meaningless provision that references existing criminal law and is unlikely to be invoked. Further, one of its provisions will actually undermine any attempt at criminal enforcement because it grants immunity to corporate executives who lie to government regulators if they later recant. What kind of consumer protection is that? None at all. We need a criminal penalty provision that will hold auto industry executives responsible for making a knowing and conscious decision to keep on the market a vehicle with safety defects that can kill or injure. This law lets the top brass off the hook. Lawmakers should write a meaningful criminal penalties provision immediately.

Also, the bill repeals a requirement that manufacturers evaluate their accident, component failure and complaint data to learn if there is a safety defect. This kind of analysis is essential for us to avoid future Ford/Firestone tragedies, and it should be the manufacturers responsibility to provide it. Without it, we will be forced to relive history.

After details of the Ford/Firestone tragedy came to light, lawmakers sprang to action. Unfortunately, in their haste, they passed a watered-down bill masquerading as a consumer safety measure. We call on Congress to get under the hood of this law and take care of its engine troubles now.