Democrats push auto safety reform bill

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Three House Democrats and auto safety advocates on Tuesday urged Congress to approve sweeping reform legislation and give auto safety regulators additional tools to get unsafe vehicles off the roads quickly.

Reps. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Diana DeGette, D-Colo., held a press conference ahead of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on the record-setting recall of 33.8 million vehicles with defective Takata air bags by 11 automakers.

Accompanied by a 21-year-old South Carolina woman who was badly injured by an exploding Takata air bag in 2012, the Democrats urged Congress to more than double funding for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Angelina Sujata showed a scar on her chest that she said was the result of surgery to remove metal fragments from her 2001 Honda Civic after a low-speed rear-end crash. She filed suit in January against Honda and Takata.

Despite withering criticism of NHTSA and congressional hearings into GM's delayed recall of a flawed ignition switch, as well another round of hearings into millions of defective Takata air bags, the prospects for sweeping auto safety reform legislation are hazy at best. Advocates have been pressing for five years in the wake of Toyota Motor Corp.’s sudden acceleration recalls, but have made little progress.

Automakers recalled a record-setting 64 million vehicles in 2014 — more than twice the prior all-time record — and NHTSA has issued fines totaling more than $125 million over the last year for delayed recalls.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Pallone said. Schakowsky said she was hopeful that after the hearing Republicans would sit down with them to talk about reforms. “The thing that has driven this is we continue to see defects and these recalls and the problems that are faced by real people,” Schakowsky said.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has raised significant concerns about Takata’s actions. The Michigan lawmaker is waiting for reports from the Transportation Department’s inspector general and Government Accountability Office into NHTSA’s handling of recalls before deciding whether to support new legislation.

On Tuesday, he said NHTSA needs changes. “This committee should be focusing more on how to update NHTSA, how to incentivize rollout of better safety technologies and how to improve recall take rates,” Upton said.

The Democrats’ measure would boost NHTSA’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 Obama administration proposed in February tripling NHTSA's auto safety budget to $31.7 million and doubling its staff to more than 100 employees, but the House Appropriations Committee didn’t follow that proposal — and no Democrat in the committee raised the issue when the budget was considered last month.

But after the House hearing the chair of the subcommittee, Rep. Mike Burgess, R-Texas, said he would be willing to support additional funding if NHTSA made the case.

He urged NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind to make a better case -- and not just rely on the White House proposal. “If money is the problem, I think they owe us a better spending plan,” Burgess told reporters, calling the NHTSA proposal “thin gruel.”

Burgess was noncommittal about embracing other auto safety reforms. He thinks in the case of the the Takata recall that there was enough legal authority six months to get the recall completed in a timely fashion.

But Rosekind said more money would mean a better agency. He said NHTSA had been swamped by 80,000 complaints last year -- even as its budget for defects has declined 23 percent in real dollars over a decade.

The Democrats' bill would require dealers to repair recalled used cars before selling them and require disclosure of recalls to buyers. It would give NHTSA fast-track 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. It would bar automakers from conducting regional recalls limited to high-humidity areas or 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.

It would eliminate the $35 million cap on fines for delayed auto safety recalls. The Obama administration has called for hiking it to $300 million.

Other bills proposed last year would allow prosecutors to seek up to life in prison for auto executives who fail to act to recall unsafe vehicles that lead to deaths.