House Auto Safety Legislation (H.R. 5164) Sets Up Roadblocks for Regulators

Oct. 2, 2000

House Auto Safety Legislation (H.R. 5164) Sets Up Roadblocks for Regulators
Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook

A House bill reported last week by the House Commerce subcommittee in response to the Ford/Firestone tire deaths and injuries fails to enhance public safety and actually cuts protections in present law. If this measure passes in its current form, automakers will gain and the public will lose.

The original purpose of the legislation was to respond to the crisis triggered by the coverup by Ford and Firestone, and to provide the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) with the authority it needs to protect Americans from defective equipment and vehicles. As has been revealed in recent congressional hearings, the agency didn’t fully use its existing authority but also is hamstrung by a lack of funding, the absence of strong penalties to deter manufacturers from failing to recall defective vehicles, and the lack of notice to DOT from manufacturers who suspect a defect.

Unfortunately, the House bill falls far short of the mark. Although lawmakers held lengthy hearings and talked about getting tough on automakers who covered up this deadly defect, the criminal penalties in the House measure are a joke. For instance, the bill addresses only false statements, not the failure to recall, and it offers immunity for people who intentionally lie to the government about safety defects if they decide to tell the truth “within a reasonable time.” It also shackles the Attorney General, who cannot prosecute an automaker for misleading the DOT without the Secretary’s recommendation.

The House bill is also lacking in its so-called “early warning” provision for the submission of information to NHTSA, which contains numerous hurdles and secrecy requirements. And while the 30-year-old tire standards would be upgraded under this bill and defective equipment could not be resold, there’s no updating of the 30-year-old roof crush standard, and the consumer information provision for assessing the rollover propensity of SUVs is still being negotiated.

The decision by NHTSA to open an investigation into Firestone’s Steeltex tire is further indication that Firestone tires are plagued by similar defects. Once again, regulators learned about the problem from the public — not the manufacturer. This latest investigation highlights the need for Congress to act swiftly and give regulators the authority they need to prevent more needless tragedies.

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Joan Claybrook is president of the consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen. She served as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977 to 1981.