A most important piece of legislation was introduced last month by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in the U.S. Senate. The bill would stiffen criminal penalties for auto industry executives and others to include sentences of up to life in prison for auto safety violations that result in death. The legislation would also prohibit the rental or sale of rental vehicles subject to a safety recall. The Motor Vehicle and Highway Safety Enhancement Act, a six-year renewal of highway and motor vehicle safety funding at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was introduced by Sen. McCaskill.
Sen. McCaskill, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, said in a statement that the bill is aimed at keeping travelers safe on the road and holding accountable companies who ignore or violate safety laws. She added:
Painful recent examples at Toyota and GM have shown us we … must make it easier to hold accountable those who jeopardize consumers’ safety. For too long, auto safety resources have remained virtually stagnant while cars and the safety challenges they present have become more complex.
The legislation covers three areas: highway safety, motor vehicle safety and rental car safety. Under the highway safety section, the bill reauthorizes highway safety funding from the Highway Trust Fund for six years, escalating from $699 million in 2015 to $892 million in 2020. It would also update highway safety programs to address emerging traffic safety issues and revise the criteria states must meet to receive ignition interlock grant funding.
As part of the motor vehicle safety section, the bill would reauthorize motor vehicle safety funding for six years, doubling National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) funding for vehicle safety over six years – from $152 million in 2015 to $268 million in 2020 – to help the agency modernize and meet evolving and increasingly complex auto safety challenges. The bill would amend legal requirements related to recalls for manufacturers going through bankruptcy. It would expand the current law, which only covers manufacturers in bankruptcy reorganizations, to cover liquidation bankruptcies. And it would increase civil penalties for auto safety violations, eliminating the maximum total penalty, which is currently set at $35 million.
Sen. McCaskill’s office said the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act’s current criminal penalties provision has never been used by federal prosecutors and noted that the U.S. Justice Department’s record criminal settlement with Toyota earlier this year was for violations of the Wire Act, not auto safety laws. The office said:
The bill gives federal prosecutors greater discretion to bring criminal prosecutions for auto safety violations and increases the possible penalties, including up to life in prison for violations that result in death.
The law would apply to any person who violates a range of federal safety laws, including auto industry executives. To strengthen rental car safety, Sen. McCaskill’s bill would prohibit the rental or sale of rental vehicles subject to a safety recall and would require rental companies to ground vehicles under a safety recall. It would also permit rental companies to rely on temporary measures identified by manufacturers.
As has been widely reported, Sen. McCaskill presided over two hearings examining General Motors’ response to the defective ignition switches that have killed and injured hundreds of innocent victims and resulted in the recall of 2.6 million vehicles earlier this year. She did an outstanding job in keeping the hearings moving and kept GM’s feet to the fire. Sen. McCaskill also led a hearing last year on rental car safety. The office said:
The subcommittee’s work on auto safety issues will continue, with a hearing being planned for the fall to examine various legislative proposals aimed at modernizing and better equipping auto safety regulators to ensure the tragedies and failures associated with the GM recall are not repeated.
Hopefully, Sen. McCaskill’s bill will make it through both the Senate and House and be signed into law by President Obama. It would serve as a tremendous incentive for persons in positions of authority with the automakers to make safety a top priority for a change.
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