Advocates slam GOP auto safety approach

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Auto safety advocates criticized a Republican Senate auto safety reform measure, and praised a more wide-ranging Democratic proposal.

On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee will consider competing auto safety proposals introduced by the committee's chair, Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the ranking Democrat.

A group of safety advocates including former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Joan Claybrook, said the Republican measure is aimed at "maintaining the status quo and favoring corporate special interests."

"With the rising death and injury toll on our roads and highways due to large truck crashes and the record recall in 2014 of 60 million vehicles nationwide for safety defects involving over 125 deaths and hundreds of injuries, now is not the time to put the brakes on overdue safety improvements or jeopardize public safety by running in reverse," said the advocates, who include Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

The advocates noted the bill would allow teenage truck drivers: "The bill will permit teenagers to drive 80,000-pound trucks on our Interstate highways, a misguided idea that was resoundingly rejected 10 years ago because of the unacceptable high crash risk of young drivers."

Daphne Izer, founder of Parents Against Tired Truckers, whose son was killed with three of his friends in a crash caused by a truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel, said, "Lowering the current minimum age of 21 to 18 for interstate truck drivers will make matters worse and should be immediately rejected."

Advocates also note that the Thune bill would not bar the practice of dealers selling unrepaired recalled used cars or rental cars lending unrepaired vehicles — but would only require notification.

Rosemary Shahan, president of California-based Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, said that would put families and business travelers in a difficult spot: forgo a rental or take a vehicle that could be unsafe.

"Every year millions of consumers are renting cars with the expectation that they will not be given a vehicle that has a deadly safety defect and has not yet been repaired. It is critically important for rental car companies to get recalled vehicles fixed before they offer them to the unsuspecting public," said Jack Gillis, director of Public Affairs for the Consumer Federation of America.

The group praised Nelson's bill co-sponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Ed Markey, D-Mass. The sweeping auto safety reform bill 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.

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 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.

It 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."