House approves new auto safety provisions

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The U.S. House approved a six-year $325 billion transportation bill Thursday on a 363-64 vote that would require automakers to fix recall defects for 15 years — up from the current 10 years —and bars rental car companies from lending unrepaired recalled vehicles.

Now, the House must reach a compromise bill with the Senate. Many of the tougher auto safety measure sought by Democrats in the wake of a string of auto safety crises in recent years were rejected.

The bill would also provide the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration with additional funding if it meets reforms called for by the Transportation Department’s inspector general and require NHTSA to report by Dec. 1 annually on planned rule makings, priorities and other plans.

The House bill would require rental car companies to halt recalled renting vehicles until they are repaired, but won’t extend the same requirement to car dealers or for used cars. Currently, dealers are only required to repair recalled new cars before selling them. The nation’s largest rental car companies voluntarily agreed in 2012 to stop renting recalled vehicles.

“Everyone getting a rental or loaner car should know with certainty that the vehicle is safe to drive. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the House and Senate to ensure that this language is signed into law and unsafe cars are taken off the road once and for all,” said Rep Lois Capps, D-Calif.

But the House approved an amendment introduced by Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, backed by the National Automobile Dealers Association that exempts auto dealers by allowing them to loan unrepaired cars under recall to consumers who bring in their own cars for repairs.

A group of consumer and safety groups opposed the exemption for auto dealers. “The NADA is being appallingly irresponsible and reckless,” said Rosemary Shahan, President of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety. “Instead of opening new loopholes for unsafe recalled cars, the NADA should follow the lead of its largest member, AutoNation, which has publicly committed to ensuring that ALL cars AutoNation dealers rent, loan, or sell are recall-free.”

The House rejected an amendment that would have banned regional auto recalls, elimination of time restrictions to remedy safety defects in vehicles and pedestrian safety improvements Safety advocates praised the rejection of an amendment that would have expanded maximum truck weights to 91,000 pounds.

“The well-financed and well-connected industry lobbyists who wrote large campaign checks cashed in on this bill, and American families are left footing the bill for multiple industry giveaways,” said former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook. “It is not enough for Congress to send President Obama a long-term transportation funding bill; it must also include a long-term commitment to reducing highway deaths and injuries.”

Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, noted the bill includes provisions to encourage the use of vehicle to infrastructure technology to help avoid traffic crashes. It will also the use of highway funds on the technology.

“Vehicle-to-infrastructure technologies are undoubtedly the future of automotive safety, as evidenced by the automotive industry’s rapid development and incorporation of such safety features and cutting-edge research initiatives like MDOT’s public-private research initiative with GM, Ford, and the University of Michigan that includes cameras and vehicle sensors along 120 miles of Southeast Michigan freeways,” Miller said.

The Obama administration has said for months that NHTSA is significantly underfunded; by 2021, NHTSA could get at least $30 million in additional funding over current levels.

Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, who chairs the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade, noted that the bill extends the period automakers must retain safety records from five years to 10 years and would give a general waiver for U.S. manufacturers to test prototypes on public roads. Current statute requires U.S. manufacturers to obtain a per-car waiver, a mismatch with the requirements on importers.

“These provisions make meaningful improvements to auto safety in the United States. But they are at the start — not the finish line,” said Burgess. “We have more work to do in the Energy and Commerce Committee and as a Congress to fulfill our responsibility to keep families safe. Our efforts continue.”

The bill doesn’t include many reforms sought by Democrats and provisions in the Senate version of a transportation bill. The Senate bill triples maximum delayed recall fines to $105 million — up from the current $35 million. The House bill doesn’t raise the fines.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has called the current fines a “rounding error” and not a deterrent.

Foxx urged Congress to add more funding to the final bill .”At the funding levels proposed in both the House and Senate bills, the result will be more traffic. I urge Congress to do more than minimum funding and to help us raise, not lower, the bar on safety. We're as close as we've been in years to a long-term bill. Make it count, make it as good as the American people deserve,” Foxx said.

Foxx in July said he wanted the legislation to included new “imminent hazard” authority to help get unsafe cars off the road quickly -- as well to require auto dealers to repair recalled used cars before selling them.

Upton said the bill will boost safety.

“Folks in Michigan know how important the auto industry is to our state and the American economy and we take special pride in putting safe vehicles on the road. But the quest for safety is ongoing and there is always room for improvement,” added Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph. “I am pleased that we were able to achieve these important reforms, but we have a lot more road to cover in our efforts. We will continue working to ensure that all who travel the nation’s roads and highways are safe behind the wheel.”