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The huge airbag recall announced last week by Japanese supplier Takata represents a sad day, not only for the occupants of the 34 million cars affected, but for federal safety regulation.

That is because the recall finally ordered by the federal safety agency (NHTSA) took so long to happen, possibly as long as 10 years. Over those years, drivers and passengers have been riding in cars that could kill or maim them. The defect, sudden explosive deployment of the safety system involved, has resulted in the deaths of at least six motorists and injuries to at least 100 others. Air bags — passive restraints — are indeed a very good safety system, saving about 2,500 lives a year. However, the standard for them has not been updated in over a decade.

The recall forced on Takata by the federal government suggests something more, a major gap in the federal safety law. There have been thousands of recalls affecting over 300 million vehicles since the federal law was passed 49 years ago. They have clearly saved thousands of lives. But in recent years recalls have become a flawed substitute for more effective regulation.

When Congress enacted the automobile safety act in 1966 (the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act) it intended to force prevention of death and injury in automobile accidents through the enactment of comprehensive performance standards for vehicles sold in the U.S. That is why we now have over 50 major safety standards, like lap and shoulder belts, collapsible steering columns and electronic brakes. Recalls of defective cars already on the roads were almost an afterthought in 1966. They were adopted only after a last-minute amendment was proposed to the original committee bill by then-Sen. Walter Mondale, D-Minn., based mostly on a single angry consumer who received notification of a defect long after he bought his car.

Originally, the law provided only for notification of a defect to the car owner. There was no requirement for the manufacturer to actually repair the defect. That part of the law was added in 1974 over manufacturer objections. The idea was to force car companies to pay for repairs in the cars they produced. Today, recalls, which reached a record number of 60 million vehicles last year, have taken on a big role in automobile safety. They are the main means by which owners of cars with a safety defect can get them repaired. But recalls are much less effective than preventing the danger in the first place by issuance of safety standards. That is what the sponsors of the law and its amendments intended.

The Takata recall will cost the company and its customers hundreds of millions of dollars. Automobile manufacturers and parts suppliers have thus learned that it sometimes pays to stall a recall. That is because they can often narrow its scope, or avoid it completely by delaying notification and repair. Inadequate fines and the absence of criminal penalties in the law for not reporting defects often make delay a cost-effective strategy for manufacturers.

Regulation by recall has also grown because NHTSA is woefully underfunded. It does not have the money, staff or technical capability to keep up with the development of new standards based on new engineering developments.

Over the decades since 1966, federal regulators have made our roads safer. But many of the federal standards now in force, including the air bag standard, have not been updated for decades. Other standards including those which could cover new car safety systems, electronics and computer technology have never been issued.

The blame for this regulation by recall and for the slowdown in preventive standard setting must be shared by the automobile industry and Congress. The former often lobbies against new safety regulations. The Congress has starved NHTSA for adequate funding and staff for years.

The industry might be excused for considering its bottom line when it evaluates the need for a recall. But there is no excuse for a Congress that ignores demonstrated gaps threatening vehicle safety and people’s lives.

Michael R. Lemov was formerly chief counsel of the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee and counsel to the subcommittee which wrote the 1974 recall amendments to the auto safety act.

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