House Auto Safety Legislation Sets Up Hurdles for Regulators, Is Riddled With Defects

 

Oct. 4, 2001

House Auto Safety Legislation Sets Up Hurdles for Regulators, Is Riddled With Defects

More than a Dozen Families From Around the Country Converge on Capitol Hill to Urge Lawmakers to Pass Meaningful Legislation


WASHINGTON, D.C. — An auto safety measure pending before the House Commerce Committee places numerous hurdles in the path of federal regulators and would even cut back on the authority of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said today.

The T.R.E.A.D. bill (H.R. 5164) adds secrecy provisions where there are now disclosure provisions, making it even harder for auto safety regulators to get information and do their jobs, Claybrook said. The bill is to be marked up Thursday morning by the House Commerce Committee.

Joining Claybrook in denouncing the bill were Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and 15 people from around the country who have either been injured or lost loved ones in Ford/Firestone crashes, or who have been affected in other ways by weak auto safety enforcement.

They included a couple from Corpus Christi, Texas, who lost their 18-year-old son in a Ford/Firestone crash; a couple from Miami, Fla., who sustained serious injuries in a Ford/Firestone crash; a woman from Catoosa, Okla., whose son was killed in a GM side saddle gas tank fire; and a woman from San Francisco, Calif., who was locked in a car trunk and has lobbied for trunk releases inside all vehicles.

All agreed upon the need for strong criminal penalties for manufacturers who don’t recall defective vehicles and for Congress to enact a requirement that manufacturers alert the government if they suspect a vehicle has a defect. The families came to Washington to walk the halls of Congress and talk to lawmakers in hopes that their personal stories would prompt action.

Claybrook, too, identified numerous difficulties with the legislation.

“This bill is riddled with problems,” Claybrook said. “Certain provisions are designed to stall the bill as a whole and create a smokescreen for the public, which is clamoring for Congress to make auto manufacturers accountable. This bill simply doesn’t do that.”

NHTSA already has broad authority and subpoena power to gather the information necessary to find potential vehicle safety defects, but it has often failed to do so. The original purpose of a similar Senate measure was to instruct the agency to do this. But even these basics are threatened by the House bill, which leaves out crucial provisions contained in the Senate legislation.

For instance, the criminal section mimics existing law, which already prohibits false statements to a government agency, but it adds an immunity provision that protects anyone who knowingly and willfully provides false auto safety information to the government but later “corrects” that false information. This is a special grant of immunity to officials whose deception may cause unnecessary injuries or death.

While the bill does increase the jail time of a possible sentence, this is essentially meaningless, as the full five-year penalty available under the present law is rarely, if ever, used, Claybrook said. Another key problem with the bill is that it doesn’t provide criminal sanctions for the knowing failure or refusal to recall a defective vehicle.

“These provisions are a sham,” Claybrook said. “In response to the Ford/Firestone crashes, lawmakers held lengthy hearings and talked about getting tough on the auto industry. But this bill is easy on the industry, and lawmakers are using it simply to appease the public and claim they are being responsive.”

Other problems with the bill include:

  • It strips from the bill the manufacturer’s duty to review and analyze various sources of information about their products that suggest a defect might exist, and eliminates their duty to alert DOT if they have “reason to believe” that a defect is creating an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death. The “early warning” provision is partially covered in the Senate bill. These were both recommended by the Secretary of Transportation;
  • It does not contain a daily penalty for withholding documents, as the Senate bill does. Nor does it contain any direct administrative enforcement of penalties, which is essential;
  • It limits the Secretary of Transportation’s rulemaking power by making the Secretary evaluate — two separate times — how burdensome the regulations may be for the auto industry. It also contains secrecy requirements that override disclosure provisions in existing law. The Senate bill doesn’t contain similar limits; and
  • It refers the bill to the House Judiciary Committee, which is a delay tactic.

“The auto industry has an obligation to collect and analyze safety defect information and report it to the federal government,” Claybrook said. “And the industry also must alert the public and government if it has reason to believe that a defect may put consumers at risk. That’s pretty basic, and it should be obvious from the stories told by everyone here today why this legislation is so desperately needed.”

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