June 26, 2014 at 1:00 am

Senator offers auto safety overhaul, new $3 car fee

Washington — The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday introduced sweeping auto safety reform legislation and proposed a boost in safety staffing that would be funded by a first-ever new federal vehicle fee.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., introduced the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2014 that would give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration more funding to conduct more investigations and stronger powers to get unsafe vehicles off the road more quickly. It would boost funding for federal auto safety oversight by more than $100 million to $280 million by 2017.

The bill comes amid intense concern by Congress over General Motors Co. failure to recall 2.6 million vehicles linked to at least 13 deaths for ignition switch defects. The Detroit automaker faces a criminal investigation and the Senate Commerce Committee panel overseeing autos is expected to hold another hearing with GM CEO Mary Barra sometime in July.

“If NHTSA doesn’t have the resources or capabilities to protect the driving public and fulfill its mission, then Congress must step in and give this agency what it needs to meet these critically important goals,” Rockefeller said. “For the past 15 years many of us have attempted to bolster NHTSA’s authority, precisely to better prevent tragedies like the deaths caused by GM’s faulty ignition switches.

“While we’ve made some progress, ultimately we’ve been blocked from fully providing NHTSA with the adequate resources and authorities it needs. Everything we’ve learned in the past months through our committee investigation into GM has made it absolutely clear that it’s time to put our differences aside. We’ve got to act now and support NHTSA if we’re going to minimize the chances of another heartbreaking tragedy.”

With time running out before Congress heads home to campaign for the 2014 midterm elections, it is not clear if legislation will be passed.

The Rockefeller bill comes two months after the top Democrat on the House panel overseeing autos offered similar legislation.

Both Rockefeller’s and the House bill would create a new, $3-per-vehicle fee to fund a hike in auto safety enforcement by NHTSA, and would rise to $9 in three years, then go up with inflation every year. In April, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, reintroduced a fee that would initially raise about $45 million to $50 million a year based on current sales volume.

Similar bills were introduced in Congress in 2010 in the wake of Toyota Motor Corp.’s sudden acceleration problems but neither got a vote by either the full House or Senate. Both Rockefeller and Waxman, two of the key advocates on auto safety in Congress, are retiring this year.

Congress could attach auto safety legislation to a highway bill. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has said he is still considering if legislation is necessary.

The Rockefeller and Waxman bills give NHTSA the authority “to expedite a recall order in the case of a substantial likelihood of death or serious injury to the public.” NHTSA must currently go through a lengthy investigative process to force an automaker to recall vehicles, one that typically takes months or even years.

They would both limits the ability of NHTSA employees to go to work for automakers “by restricting NHTSA employees responsible for vehicle safety from certain post-employment activities.”

Waxman’s bill would boost the maximum fine for delaying a recall to $200 million, up from the current $35 million, which was doubled in 2012 by Congress. The Obama administration wants the maximum fine to be $300 million for failing to inform NHTSA of a defect within five days of determining a vehicle poses a risk to driver safety. Rockefeller’s bill boosts the maximum fine per vehicle but would completely lift the cap on fines per delayed recall campaign.

Both bills would also prohibit car dealers from selling used vehicles with known pending safety recalls without fixing the defect or making the consumer aware of the defect. Currently, only new car dealers are required to make recall repairs before selling a vehicle. They both would also seek to promote greater transparency at NHTSA “by requiring public availability of early warning data, improving consumer access to the vehicle safety database, and limiting the revolving door between NHTSA and the auto industry,” Rockefeller’s office said.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com