House Committee Approves Auto Safety Bill

June 1, 2010

Amid partisan sparring, a House panel has advanced a sweeping U.S. auto safety bill that critics contend is too tough on the industry.

The legislation, approved 31-21 by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the wake of the large Toyota Motor Corp. recalls, now goes to the full House, where lawmakers hope to pass it later this year.

Toyota has recalled more than 8.5 million vehicles around the globe, leading to the first major review of auto safety laws in Congress in a decade.

Under provisions of the bill, automakers would be required to meet new safety standards to prevent unintended acceleration in vehicles — a key issue in the Toyota recalls. They also would face new rules for brake override systems and vehicle black boxes and tougher penalties for slowing down a recall.

Rep. Henry Waxman, a Democrat and the committee’s chairman, called it a “balanced bill” that would “dramatically improve the safety of motor vehicles.”

But Republicans said the bill, including tougher fines, was overly harsh on the industry. They questioned efforts to boost federal funding for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and add user fees of $3 to $9 per vehicle to fund NHTSA’s safety program.

“If you think this bill helps the automotive industry … I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn that I don’t own that I’d be happy to sell to you,” said Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican.

Democrats said the federal agency had been underfunded for years, limiting its ability to root out potential safety defects.

The bill empowers NHTSA to order a recall if it finds “substantial likelihood of death or serious injury to the public.” Automakers could present information before the department issues a final order.

Automakers typically conduct voluntary safety recalls but if they disagree with the government on the need for one, NHTSA must develop a case for a recall and then hold a public hearing. The process can take months.

Car companies that fail to promptly report safety defects to the government would face tougher penalties of up to $200 million.

Toyota paid the maximum penalty of $16.4 million for a slow response to one of its recalls. Safety groups have called it inadequate and pushed for stiffer fines.

Auto executives who knowingly provide false information to the government could face penalties of up to $5 million under the proposal.

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