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Automakers oppose new vehicle tax to fund safety boost

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A trade association representing major automakers said Friday they oppose a sweeping auto safety reform measure proposed by House Democrats that would be funded with a new vehicle tax.

“Auto companies are working on a variety of exciting new vehicle safety technologies — any one of which will do more to advance traffic safety than this bill. New technology — not new taxes — is the best way to make our roads even safer,” said Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade group representing Detroit’s Big Three automakers, Toyota Motor Corp., Volkswagen AG and others.

On Friday, a group of House Democrats reintroduced auto safety reform legislation a year after General Motors Co. recalled 2.6 million vehicles now linked to at least 57 deaths.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., is reintroducing a measure that would dramatically hike the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s auto safety budget by at least $100 million by 2017 by imposing a $3 fee on all new car sales that would rise to $9 by 2018. The bill is backed by Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and at least four other Democrats, her office said.

The small fee was proposed by Democrats in 2010 but has garnered little support. The Obama administration proposed this month tripling NHTSA’s auto safety budget to $31.7 million and doubling its staff to more than 100 employees.

Despite withering criticism of NHTSA and congressional hearings into GM’s delayed recall, as well another round of hearings into millions of defective Takata air bags, the prospects for sweeping auto safety reform legislation are hazy. Many auto industry officials think it is unlikely major reforms are approved. In 2010, after harsh criticism of NHTSA following Toyota Motor Corp. recall of millions of vehicles, Congress considered but never voted on major auto safety legislation.

On Thursday, a Senate panel approved a bill to allow for additional compensation for auto sector whistleblowers. Republicans, so far, have shown no interest in taking up broader legislation.

In an interview Friday, Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said he hasn’t focused on auto safety issues yet this year. “I just haven’t had a chance to focus on it yet,” Upton said, saying he plans to review the bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee. He was noncommittal on whether he will bring up auto safety legislation this year.

Earlier this month, his office said “the committee is eagerly awaiting the government watchdog report requested last year, which will provide important additional information and recommendations. While it’s not clear that a massive shake-up of our laws and regulators is necessary, the failures we exposed last year will be addressed, and we look forward to working with the new NHTSA head in that effort."

The Democrats bill would require auto dealers to repair recalled used cars before selling them and require disclosure of recalls to prospective buyers. It would also give NHTSA new authority to get unsafe vehicles off the road immediately for “any condition that substantially increases the likelihood of serious injury or death if not remedied immediately.”

The bill would require NHTSA to create new regulations, including new standards for passenger motor vehicles to reduce the number of pedestrian and cyclist injuries and fatalities. NHTSA would also have to research the development of safety standards to improve the crash worthiness and survivability for back-seat passengers.

The measure would bar automakers from conducting regional recalls limited to high humidity areas or places where road salt is used.

The bill requires that a remedy for a defective vehicle be provided without charge, regardless of when the motor vehicle or replacement equipment was purchased. Under the current law, remedies are not required without charge for vehicles or equipment purchased more than 10 years before a recall.

The Democrats’ bill would eliminate the $35 million cap on fines for most delayed auto safety recalls. The Obama administration has called for hiking it to $300 million per delay.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com