Government Action on Auto Safety Mandates Established in Wake of Ford-Firestone Falls Short

June 3, 2004

Government Action on Auto Safety Mandates Established in Wake of Ford-Firestone Falls Short

NHTSA’s Implementation of TREAD Act Shortchanges Motorists, Public Citizen President Tells Lawmakers in Testimony

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The federal agency responsible for issuing auto safety safeguards established by Congress after the Ford-Firestone tragedies has issued rules that fall far short in improving motor vehicle safety, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook told a congressional panel today.

In 2000, after nearly 200 people died and 700 were injured in crashes caused by defective Firestone tires and Ford vehicles, Congress passed the Transportation, Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act, which was designed to warn the public about vehicle defects soon after manufacturers become aware of them and help people avoid crashes by requiring new tire standards, better tire pressure monitoring systems and better consumer information about rollover propensity. Congress ordered the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to carry out its mandates. It also gave the agency additional funds and staff to carry out the new law.

While NHTSA did well in issuing the rules in a timely fashion, the agency – under pressure from the auto industry and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) – shortchanged the public in the substance of the rules, many of which favored the auto industry’s interests over the public, said Claybrook, who testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Competition, Foreign Commerce and Infrastructure. In some cases, the agency even undermined lawmakers’ intent. For instance, the agency declared much of the information in the early warning database to be secret, when in fact it was supposed to be public. 

“NHTSA did a great job of acting quickly on the tight schedule set by the TREAD Act,” said Claybrook, who was NHTSA administrator from 1977 to 1981. “But the agency caved under outside pressure on the content of the new rules. It is very important that Congress provided clear direction in the TREAD Act, because that’s the only way effective oversight of the agency can be assured.”

Claybrook presented lawmakers with a scorecard that graded NHTSA’s rules from “A” to “F”:

  • Early warning database (“F”). Through mandatory disclosure of potential safety defects to both NHTSA and the public, the early warning database was supposed to help consumers educate themselves about potentially dangerous vehicles and alert the government to growing problems. Automakers were to submit information to NHTSA about vehicle defects, deaths, injuries, consumer complaints, warranty claims and more. However, NHTSA decreed that almost all the information would remain secret. This undermines the point of the act: to arm consumers with information about developing defects so they can protect themselves.
  • Tire pressure monitoring system (“F”). In the TREAD Act, Congress required NHTSA to develop a standard for warning systems to alert operators when a vehicle’s tires are underinflated. NHTSA selected an effective system, but OMB intervened, and NHTSA instead issued a rule that would allow automakers to install an ineffective system. Public Citizen and other consumer groups sued; in August 2003, an appellate court ordered NHTSA to rewrite the rule, saying the agency had acted against congressional intent. Ten months later, NHTSA has yet to issue a revised rule.
  • Dynamic rollover consumer information test (“C minus”). After the TREAD Act, NHTSA established a star rating system and began publishing information about how rollover-prone vehicles are. But under the system, even the most rollover-prone vehicles are awarded an inflated score of at least one star, and the on-road (“dynamic”) test is used to inflate scores but not downgrade them.
  • Reimbursement rules (“D”). The TREAD Act required manufacturers to reimburse owners who have paid to repair a defect prior to being notified of a recall. But NHTSA established a system impossible for consumers to follow. Consumers can be reimbursed only if they apply after NHTSA opens an engineering analysis or the repair is one year prior to the date the manufacturer tells NHTSA about a defect. Of course, most consumers don’t know what an engineering analysis is or how to check NHTSA’s defect investigation calendar. The system is stacked against motorists. Public Citizen’s petition for reconsideration remains unanswered after 18 months.
  • Tire safety standards (“D”). As required by the TREAD Act, NHTSA in June 2003 issued a rule updating tire performance. However, it failed to adequately address tire strength and road hazard protection, or to establish minimum standards for aging or a tire strength test.

The best thing Congress can do now, Claybrook said, is to pass the safety provisions in S.1072, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2004 (SAFETEA). These would establish rollover prevention and protection standards, anti-ejection standards, a standard to prevent the extensive harm from vehicle mismatch, and other crucial, long-overdue safeguards, preventing thousands of deaths and injuries annually. Clear and precise direction from Congress about the safety goals of new laws – which is included in S. 1072 – would help avoid a repeat of the disappointments of the TREAD Act.

“The TREAD Act took a step toward improving crash avoidance and consumer information,” Claybrook said. “The pending legislation is much more comprehensive and tackles decades of neglected priorities to improve vehicle crash safety. Between 2000, when the TREAD Act was passed, and the end of 2003, 41,462 people died in rollover crashes alone – more than 200 times the number of people killed by Firestone tires and Ford Explorers when Congress leapt to action in 2000.”

Click here to read Claybrook’s testimony.

###