Lawmakers spar in hearing over auto safety proposals

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau
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Washington — Lawmakers sparred in a hearing Wednesday over competing proposals to improve auto safety through legislation they say would improve the recall process for safety defects and enhance standards for the protection of motorists’ privacy and security.

Democrats took aim at a House GOP draft bill, saying it does little to improve the efficacy and awareness of the recall process and lamenting that it provides no new funding for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s vehicle safety programs.

Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, ranking member of the Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, said the legislation includes “little meaningful change” from the status quo.

For example, “the bill would give automakers a break from health-based carbon emissions standards, in exchange for adding safety features that are readily available.

“In the wake of Volkswagen’s deliberate cheating on EPA emissions standards, it makes no sense that we’d give car makers a free pass to pollute beyond standards needed to maintain public health. This provision is a big win for the VWs of the world, but does nothing to protect the public.”

Energy & Commerce Committee Chair Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, called the draft bill a “starting point” to foster improved vehicle and roadway safety.

“Some pieces, like having a corporate officer responsible for safety compliance, aren’t new,” Upton said. “Other ideas, like how to best ensure cybersecurity, may need to further evolve.”

Upton also said the bill seeks to address concerns about recall awareness and “incentivizes” automakers to invest in new technologies “that will indeed save lives.”

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey said there is “no apparent link” between crash avoidance and vehicle-to-vehicle technologies and lower carbon emissions. “Manufacturers would get these (greenhouse gas emissions) credits for things they are already doing — not as an incentive to improve safety,” said Pallone, the committee’s ranking member.

Federal regulators also raised several concerns before the committee about the provision.

“There should not be a trade-off between safety and public health,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said. “The automakers already have ample incentives to deploy advanced safety technologies: the lives they can save, and the injuries they can prevent.”

Rosekind was also critical of proposals on privacy and cybersecurity that he said may have “the opposite of their intended effect” and undermine safety by providing the regulated automakers majority representation on councils to establish standards that would serve as “de facto regulations.”

Rosekind also said “there’s no question” that his agency’s stagnant funding has made it harder for it to keep unsafe vehicles off the roads. “Give us more resources, we’ll give you more safety,” he said. “If you give us more requirements and the same (amount of resources), you will get less safety.”

Maneesha Mithal, associate director of the division of privacy and identity protections for the Federal Trade Commission, said her agency is concerned in part about a provision that would grant automakers liability protections in exchange for potentially weak best practices on cybersecurity created by a council they would control.

“We are concerned that the current draft will not encourage best practices robust enough to protect consumers,” she said.

Democrats have introduced auto safety reform legislation in both the House and Senate that would dramatically boost recall fines, give NHTSA broad new authority and impose new criminal penalties on auto executives that allow unsafe vehicles on the roads.

A compromise highway bill considered by the Senate earlier this year would have tripled recall fines to $105 million from the current $35 million maximum.

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