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Washington — The Senate Commerce Committee approved the first piece of auto safety legislation in the wake of two massive auto safety crises — a bill to give automotive sector employees incentives to sound the alarm on vehicle defects.

The legislation — first proposed in November — would let auto industry employee whistle-blowers 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.

Thune said the measure would be a powerful tool. “While I believe most manufacturers are dedicated to putting vehicle safety first, there have been disappointing examples where that did not happen and Americans died and sustained serious injuries. This legislation will be a powerful tool to help ensure that problems regarding known safety defects are promptly reported to safety regulators,” he said.

Nelson said the auto industry needs to be accountable. “The auto industry needs to be held accountable if it makes decisions that result in serious injuries or deaths,” Nelson said. “And, one way to do that is to encourage insiders to come forward and tell the truth.”

The bill would grant the Secretary of Transportation discretion to award 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.

It’s not clear what the prospects for the bill are in the U.S. House. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has said for months he is considering introducing auto safety legislation. Many other bills introduced in the Senate on auto safety — including those that would subject auto executives who delayed recalls linked to deaths to lengthy prison terms — haven’t had a hearing.

The Obama administration wants to hike recall fines to up to $300 million per delayed recall over the current maximum $35 million and get sweeping new authority to get unsafe vehicles off the road quickly.

General Motors Co. in May paid a record $35 million fine to the NHTSA. That means if a whistleblower had alerted NHTSA, he or she could have received up to $10.5 million under the bill. Honda Motor Co. paid a $70 million fine for failing to disclose crash data to NHTSA in a timely fashion.

The bill would cover “original information” that wasn’t previously known to NHTSA about motor vehicle defects, noncompliance or violation of any reporting requirement that is likely to cause risk of death or serious injury.

Since 2008, automakers have recalled about 17 million vehicles with Takata air bags that can rupture sending metal fragments that can kill or seriously injure occupants — an issue linked to at least six deaths and 64 injuries.

Toyota Motor Corp. in March paid a $1.2 billion fine after it was charged with wire fraud for delayed recalls.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com

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