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Public Citizen Calls on Senate to Amend House Auto Safety Legislation

October 11, 2000

Public Citizen Calls on Senate to Amend
House Auto Safety Legislation

House Bill Would Not Prevent Future Ford/Firestone Fiascos; Families From Around the Country Call for Meaningful Legislation

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Senate should amend auto safety legislation passed early this morning by the House because it is so harmful to the governments ability to prevent situations like the Ford/Firestone case from happening again, Public Citizen said today.

Joined by people from around the country who have lost loved ones or been injured in Ford/Firestone and other kinds of crashes, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook called on the Senate to oppose the House bill (H.R. 5164). The Senate could consider the measure as early as today.

“The measure approved by the House cuts back government authority to enforce the law. Despite public remorse and apologies by auto and tire executives, their lobbyists are working furiously to gut and weaken key provisions that would prevent the Firestone fiasco from happening again,” Claybrook said. “We need lawmakers to stand up to the auto industry and pass strong and meaningful safety legislation.”

The better legislation is a Senate measure (S. 3059), which contains effective information and criminal penalties provisions, Claybrook said.

The families, who came to Washington to lobby senators, planned in the afternoon to deliver plastic bottles to every senator. The bottles contained a copy of a letter to each senator and a piece of candy representing a pill. A label on the bottles read, “Dont swallow poison pills. Beware of deadly defects in H.R. 5164: Firestone bill. Saves Lives — Amend the Bill.”

The House bill sets up new hurdles for safety regulators and consumers by creating new zones of secrecy for the auto industry and by providing immunity to company executives who intentionally deceive the government if they later recant their lies. This is worse than under current law because these executives now could be prosecuted for their lies.

The poison pills in the House bill that undercut current government authority include:

The bill forbids the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from disclosing information about a defect or early warning of a defect unless the Secretary of Transportation makes a case-by-case determination — which could be subject to legal challenge — that the disclosure is allowed. Worse, the bill would shield defect and early warning information from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), thereby severely limiting public access to important safety information;

Under the bill, manufacturers could not be required to submit records unless they are in their “possession.” This is a huge loophole. This dangerous provision would encourage manufacturers not to maintain records but instead to destroy records, dispose of them on short timetables, have contractors maintain them, and refuse to collect data and run needed tests; and

The broad immunity provision renders the criminal penalties provision useless. A person charged under the statutes criminal statute who recants his or her intentional lies could claim immunity from prosecution under both the new criminal provision and existing law (18 U.S.C. 1001, which prohibits false statements to the government). The new statue might well be interpreted by courts as supplanting the general statute on false statements that exists now.

“This bill does nothing to help us,” said Geoff Coffin, a Connecticut resident who sustained severe injuries in 1995 when his new Ford Explorer with Firestone Wilderness AT tires rolled over after a tire detreaded. Coffin, who spent eight months in a body cast, fractured his skull, broke seven ribs, sustained a spinal cord injury, ruptured a kidney and punctured a lung.

Added Stephanie Morosin, of Albuquerque, N.M., who also came to lobby senators about the legislation, “Grow ears and hear us.” Morosin was injured in a Ford Bronco rollover accident in 1995.

In contrast, the Senate bill (S. 3059) appropriately focuses on increasing NHTSAs enforcement authority and, while imperfect, is acceptable to consumers, Claybrook said. Congress should pass it before leaving town, she said. Under this measure, auto manufacturers that sell to the public must:

collect, analyze and evaluate data related to compliance and safety defects from information that the companies may already maintain in-house — including warranty and adjustment files, consumer complaints, recalls and “consumer satisfaction” campaigns here and abroad, failures of components and systems, and lawsuits involving injuries and deaths;

report this information to DOT; and

alert the government if they believe that a manufacturing defect puts consumers at risk of injury or death.

In addition, the Senate bill contains criminal penalties for officers or directors who knowingly sell a vehicle or equipment that has a defect or does not comply with federal safety standards if the defect endangers consumers and has caused serious harm. It also authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to require recordkeeping and reporting to enable DOT to check compliance with safety provisions.