July 1, 2014 at 11:25 pm

Upton plans to introduce auto safety overhaul

Upton (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)

Washington — The powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee says he expects to introduce auto safety overhaul legislation by early next year, following General Motors Co.’s massive recalls

Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, is the most prominent Republican to come out in favor of an auto safety overhaul. It comes after top Democrats in the House and Senate introduced bills to give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration more power, funding and lift the $35 million cap on automaker fines for delaying recalls to $200 million.

“We’ve got to figure out what happened. We’re going to come back, I think, with legislation later on maybe this year, maybe early next year — once we get enough,” Upton told WWMT-TV in Kalamazoo. “What went wrong? Why were the dots not connected?”

The push comes amid intense concern by Congress over GM’s failure to recall 2.6 million vehicles linked to at least 13 deaths for ignition switch defects, more than a decade after some in the company were aware of a problem. The automaker faces a criminal investigation and the Senate Commerce Committee panel overseeing autos is expected to hold another hearing with GM CEO Mary Barra in mid-July.

The Justice Department, Securities and Exchange Commission and more than a dozen state attorneys general are investigating GM’s conduct.

Upton said he is working on an update to the 2000 auto safety law known as the TREAD act approved after more than 270 deaths were linked to faulty Firestone tires on Ford SUVs.

“What do we need to do to strengthen that law so that in fact, it can never happen again. We have a number of ideas that I think will move forward,” Upton said. He said he wants to continue the GM investigation first.

Last week, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee 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 increase NHTSA funding to conduct more investigations; the agency would have stronger powers to get unsafe vehicles off the road more quickly. The law would boost funding for auto safety oversight by more than $100 million to $280 million by 2017.

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 bills 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.

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

Both 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.

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. Rockefeller’s bill would completely lift the cap on fines.

Both bills would prohibit car dealers from selling used vehicles with known safety recalls without fixing them or informing buyers.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade group representing Detroit automakers and others, raised objections to the Rockefeller bill.

“The alliance always stands ready to work with the Congress and NHTSA to reduce traffic fatalities, however it is still unclear as to how this bill would truly help us continue moving safety enhancements forward,” spokesman Wade Newton said.