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A bipartisan group of U.S. senators led by the top Republican and Democrat on the Commerce Committee reintroduced legislation Thursday to give automotive sector employees incentives to sound the alarm on vehicle defects.

The legislation — first introduced in November — would allow auto industry employee whistle-blowers to potentially be paid millions if they reveal hidden dangers. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the chairman of the Commerce Committee, and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla, the ranking member, reintroduced the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act.

“Ensuring the safety of American motorists is a priority, but the public’s trust has been shaken due to the record number of recalls this past year,” Thune said, noting the nearly 64 million vehicles recalled in 2014 were an all-time high. “There is much more work that needs to be done.”

The bill would grant the secretary of transportation the discretion to award whistle-blowers up to 30 percent of the total monetary penalties resulting from Department of Transportation or Justice Department enforcement actions that total more than $1 million. The bill covers employees or contractors of motor vehicle manufacturers, parts suppliers and dealerships.

General Motors Co. in May paid a record $35 million fine to the NHTSA.​ That means if a whistle-blower had alerted NHTSA, he or she could have received up to $10.5 million under the bill.

Toyota Motor Corp. in March paid a $1.2 billion fine for its delayed recalls. In theory, a Toyota whistle-blower could have collected a staggering sum of $360 million under the bill.

The bill will cover “original information” not previously known to NHTSA relating to any motor vehicle defect, noncompliance or violation of any reporting requirement that is likely to cause risk of death or serious physical injury. The Transportation Department will assess whether the whistle-blower had the chance to report the problem internally and how significant the information is.

NHTSA would protect whistle-blowers’ identities. But they would get no money if convicted of a crime in connection with the issue.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com

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