House Democrats have introduced another bill to toughen federal auto safety laws. This came after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) came under more criticism by lawmakers last month for its handling of the General Motors (GM) ignition switch recalls. The bill, called the “Vehicle Safety Improvement Act,” would expand public access to vehicle defect and safety information, allow NHTSA to levy stiffer fines and other penalties on automakers that violate safety laws, and require automakers to explain potential causes of fatal crashes in communications to NHTSA.
The bill was introduced by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., a top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee after the committee’s Republican leadership released a scathing report on NHTSA’s role in the GM ignition switch recalls. Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the top-ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, co-sponsored the bill. This is the latest signal of the growing support on Capitol Hill to revamp NHTSA and to bolster auto safety laws in the wake of GM’s ignition switch crisis.
Under the bill, NHTSA would be required to post technical service bulletins about safety defects on its website. All “early warning report” information not exempted by the Freedom of Information Act would have to be disclosed to the public. Publicly available summaries about NHTSA inquiries to automakers seeking information on fatal accidents would also have to be published every six months.
The bill would require automakers to explain to NHTSA the potential cause of fatal accidents and require automakers to retain records on possible defects for 20 years, compared with the five years currently required. Under the bill, NHTSA would also receive greater power to penalize automakers with bigger civil fines while the cap on penalties would be eliminated “in most cases” for related violations of federal auto safety laws.
As we have reported previously, there have been a number of bills in Congress in an attempt to make our vehicles and highways safer. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., introduced a bill in August that would double NHTSA’s funding, remove the $35 million cap on civil penalties for companies that violate auto safety laws, and make auto executives face life in prison for delaying recalls that result in deaths. A May proposal by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Mass., Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., also sought to eliminate the $35 million fine cap.
A bill introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., in June would give NHTSA more funding and the power to order dangerous vehicles off the road. In April, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx asked Congress to hike the maximum civil penalty for a violation of U.S. auto safety laws more than eightfold to $300 million to push automakers to more quickly issue safety recalls. Hopefully, all of these bills will pass and be signed into law. The American people have become aware of how poor our regulatory efforts have been and expect things to be improved.
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