Highway bill would double auto recall fines

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A compromise six-year highway reauthorization bill introduced Tuesday would make significant changes in auto safety policy including doubling maximum fines for delayed recalls to $70 million per campaign, allowing for email notification of recalls and barring rental car firms from leasing unrepaired recalled vehicles.

The compromise 1,030-page bill unveiled by Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., would also create a two-year pilot program that would assess the value of informing consumers of vehicle recalls any time they get license plates. It would be open to up to six states.

But the bill is far short of what Democrats had sought. Democrats on Tuesday voted against starting debate on the bill, but McConnell said he would again bring it up for debate Wednesday. The first three years of the six-year bill that will cost about $45 billion are paid for, but Congress would need to return to find funding for the final three years.

Automakers have urged Congress to reject requests by Democrats to amend the bill to add tougher auto safety provisions including lifting the cap on auto safety fines and create new criminal penalties for auto execs who fail to recall unsafe vehicles.

The issue is gas tax revenue — which has not been raised since 1993 when it was hiked to 18.4 cents per gallon — is not keeping pace with needs because Americans are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles.

NHTSA must conduct a number of research projects, including a report on the feasibility of a system in each new motor vehicle to indicate when the vehicle is subject to an open recall. Democrats this month proposed a dashboard light that would warn owners of uncompleted recalls.

The bill would also clarify that data stored in vehicle event data recorders — better known as black boxes — remains the property of the driver and specifies under what conditions the data may be accessed by law enforcement. NHTSA would be required to write new rules within two years to establish the appropriate period during which black boxes event may capture and record for data necessary for accident investigations.

In late 2012, NHTSA proposed rules that would mandate the installation of black boxes in all light-duty vehicles and wanted them to be required in all vehicles starting in September 2014, but almost three years later the agency still hasn’t finalized the rules. In a report issued this month, the Transportation Department says it plans to finalize the rules by the end of the year.

NHTSA’s vehicle safety budget would be authorized to rise from $132.7 million for next year to $147.3 million by 2020.

NHTSA could get another $46 million or more in funding if it meets improvements as certified by the Transportation Department Office of Inspector General.

The Transportation Department would also need to study whether to lift rules that bar windshield obstructions and allow information to be displayed such as lane-departure warnings, forward collision warnings and active cruise-control systems.