Bipartisan push in Senate for auto safety reform

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Senate Republicans and Democrats on Thursday introduced competing auto safety measures this week in the wake of more than 120 deaths linked to faulty ignition switches and more than 32 million vehicles recalled for faulty air bags.

But the parties have dramatically different approaches.

Democratic senators on Thursday introduced a sweeping auto safety reform bill that would require automakers to install warning lights on vehicle dashboards to notify owners of safety recalls, lift the cap on delayed recall fines and would require crash-avoidance technologies.

"If the recent rash of recalls tells us anything, it's that we must do a much better job of protecting the driving public while holding automakers and regulators more accountable," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the ranking member of the Commerce Committee. "As we try to find a way forward on a comprehensive highway bill, enacting these critical safety reforms should be a top priority."

And on the Republican side of the aisle, the chairman of Senate Commerce committee, John Thune, R-South Dakota, unveiled Thursday a comprehensive surface transportation reauthorization bill with more modest auto safety reforms. The committee will hold a hearing Wednesday to consider the bill and will debate the competing auto safety measures.

"There have been significant management failures at the agency responsible for vehicle recalls linked to fatalities," Thune said. "This is our opportunity to address failures and make agencies more responsive to commonsense public needs and more accountable to taxpayers."

The Democratic measure was first reported early Thursday by The Detroit News and introduced by Nelson, Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts. "After several years of the largest and deadliest recalls in U.S. automotive history, the American people deserve comprehensive and sweeping auto safety reform legislation," said Markey.

It embraces many reforms that have been proposed after GM's delayed recall of 2.59 million older cars with defective ignition switches now linked to at least 121 deaths and 250 injuries — and the recall by 11 automakers of more than 50 million vehicles with Takata air bags worldwide that are linked to at least eight deaths and more than 100 injuries.

The Nelson bill would require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set new rules that would require new vehicles to be equipped with "a warning feature — similar to tire-pressure monitor light on the dashboard — that would notify consumers that their cars are subject to a safety recall."

In order for the system to work, it would mean the vehicles would need some telematic system — like General Motors' OnStar — that would allow automakers to send wireless messages to cars. It's not clear if owners would have to look at a warning light for weeks or months until dealers had parts and could complete repairs.

NHTSA says about 25 percent of vehicle recalls are never completed.

The Republican-backed bill would require new car dealers and rental car companies to notify owners of any open recalls when a vehicle is brought in for service or rented, while the Democratic bill would require new car dealers to check for and fix safety defects subject to open recalls when consumers take cars in for routine maintenance. That's something most automakers require, but it isn't required by law.

New car dealers only have to complete vehicle recalls on new vehicles that haven't been sold.

Blumenthal said in a Detroit News interview that the auto safety measure Democrats are introducing "is more aggressive and comprehensive" than the Republican proposal. "The repeated recalls and defect failings — not only the automobiles but the system designed to protect consumers" will push Congress to act, he said.

He said warning drivers with a light on the dash of a new recall makes sense. "If a warning light can flash for low oil or low tires as an alert to bring the car for a tune up, it certainly should be technologically feasible to alert a consumer that their ignition switch is going to turn the car off or their air bag is going to explode in their face," Blumenthal said. "

The Democratic-backed bill also would adopt the proposal of the National Transportation Safety Board — in place since 2012 — to require all light vehicles to have crash-avoidance technologies like forward-collision warning systems and automatic braking. NHTSA would be required to start the process of mandating the technologies within two years.

Many of the reforms have been included in other auto safety reform measures over the last 17 months.

But with the exception of a Senate bill to award auto safety whistle-blowers, the other reform measures have gotten almost no traction in Congress.

The Democrats' bill would lift the current $35 million cap on delayed recall fines completely, while the Obama administration has proposed hiking it to $300 million.

It would end the 10-year limitation on the obligation of auto and parts manufacturers to replace or fix defects at no charge to consumers. The Republican bill would not lift the current cap.

The Democrats' bill also would require NHTSA to conduct a safety research initiative into possible technological means for preventing deaths of children who are accidentally left behind in vehicles. NHTSA has previously said that technology to prevent children being left behind in hot cars is not reliable enough to require.

It would create a new crime that would allow auto executives to be sent to jail for up to five years if they knowingly conceal a dangerous safety issue that "poses a danger of death or serious physical injury. Federal agencies must be verbally informed within 24 hours of the entity or person acquiring actual knowledge of a serious danger, and they must be further informed by writing within 15 days."

The bill would also give NHTSA authority to investigate and prosecute people who hack into vehicle electronics to "endanger public safety." NHTSA would get "imminent hazard authority" to expedite a recall order in the case of a substantial likelihood of death or serious injury.

Democrats would also authorize tripling NHTSA's defects budget and double its staffing.

But Thune's bill wouldn't boost funding. "Given the significant deficiencies uncovered by the DOT Inspector General, however, it does not provide the exponential increase in resources requested by NHTSA, focusing instead on fixing the agency's problems first," a summary of the Thune bill says.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — the trade group representing Detroit's Big Three automakers, Toyota Motor Corp., Daimler AG and others — said it was reviewing both proposals.