A major overhaul of how the federal government regulates automobile safety is long overdue. There is currently a movement in Washington to conduct such an overhaul. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) is the author of a bill in the House that would make significant changes in the safety standards and the authority of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to enforce them. This legislation is needed now more than ever.
In handling product liability litigation, lawyers in our firm are routinely faced with arguments from automobile manufacturers saying that their vehicles are “reasonably safe” just because the designs comply with the NHTSA standards. There are numerous problems with this argument. First and foremost, many of the standards are grossly outdated. Some of the standards were established 30-40 years ago. Due to advances in technology and materials, the standards are weak and fail to address many of the “new” problems created by the rapid changes in the design of automobiles and their components. Prime examples are the safety regulations relating to vehicle tires.
While some recent upgrades to the standards have been made, many of the current criteria were put into place when the vast majority of tires on the roads were bias-ply tires. Today, virtually all tires on the roads are steel belted radials. Another issue involves SUVs. The standards that apply to SUVs were adopted at a time when these popular vehicles were barely in existence. As a result the standards are grossly inadequate from a safety perspective.
Rep. Waxman’s legislation would mandate that all vehicles be equipped with black boxes that would provide basic vehicle diagnostic data. The legislation would also mandate that manufacturers install brake override systems – a measure that would directly address the sudden acceleration problem we are seeing in Toyotas and other vehicles. Toyota recently agreed to pay $16.4 million for delaying by at least four months a recall of 2.3 million vehicles over sticky pedal concerns. If the Waxman bill had been law, NHTSA could have imposed a $69 billion penalty. Most importantly, the bill would grant the regulatory agency power to order the immediate cessation of sales and production of vehicles that pose an “imminent danger” to the public.
Rep. Waxman, who has long been a champion of consumer rights, said the bill was aimed at restoring “the faith of the driving public.” A group of House Republicans, who are ignoring reality, are opposing the bill, calling it “overkill.” This legislation is badly needed, and if it were to result in the avoidance of another Toyota-type safety crisis, the efforts made to pass the reform measure would be well worth it.
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