Highway Bill Comes Wrapped in Safety Groups' To-Do List
By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, March 2, 2004; Page E01
One way to get a regulatory agenda moving is to get it attached to a piece of must-pass legislation. That's the goal of auto safety and consumer groups who want to see the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration address long-lingering issues, such as stronger vehicle roofs, safer power windows and design changes to make sport-utility vehicles less dangerous in crashes.
So far, the strategy has worked. The $318 billion highway and transit funding bill the Senate passed last month includes more than a dozen regulatory initiatives that the NHTSA would have to complete over the next six years. The Bush administration is already on record criticizing the regulatory mandates in the bill, and the NHTSA provisions are expected to face opposition in the House.
Many of the rulemakings directed by the Senate have been priorities for safety groups for years, and the safety agency has several of them on its to-do list as well. But consumer advocates believe a legislative directive that sets specific deadlines will mean safer vehicles sooner.
"We view this as an opportunity to direct the safety agenda for the next six years," said Jacqueline Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "You give the agency specific directions with reasonable deadlines to implement specific actions."
Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator who is now president of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, said: "NHTSA is aware of the need for all of these standards, but the public has no assurance that these rules will ever be issued in a final fashion. They have been on the docket for 20 years."
In working with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) to create the NHTSA section of the bill, the consumer groups used as their model the bill that passed in 2000 in the aftermath of the Bridgestone/Firestone tire scandal. Millions of tires were recalled after reports of hundreds of deaths and injuries caused after Firestone tires failed and the attendant publicity generated support for the bill.
The so-called TREAD Act instructed NHTSA to complete 41 proposed and final rules and reports. The agency has completed the work, except for a rule on monitoring tire pressure that was delayed by a court case.
The NHTSA recently published a list of regulatory priorities, which includes many of the items in the Senate bill. For example, it said that between 2003 and 2006 it would address enhanced side-crash protection for vehicles, look at improving door locks and other means of keeping occupants from being ejected from vehicles in accidents, and upgrade its standard for how strong roofs must be to protect occupants in a rollover.
But the differences in approach and timetables -- some of the issues are still in the research and testing stage at NHTSA -- prompted safety groups to ask for legislative deadlines.
For example, the agency has been contemplating a new frontal offset crash test for at least five years; it recently asked for comments on whether it should go forward with a rule proposal. The Senate bill requires a rule in 2006.
Similarly, to reduce the likelihood of occupants being ejected from vehicles, NHTSA said it would upgrade its door latch requirements, which are 30 years old, by 2005. Consumer groups pushed to make stronger latches a requirement, but had to settle for a 2007 deadline.
And the agency asked for comments on updating its roof crush standard in 2001 and is researching the potential benefits. The Senate bill calls for a rollover crashworthiness standard that would strengthen roofs in 2006 and consider technologies that protect occupants in such crashes.
"We need to move forward with these," Gillan said. "This technology is already on a lot of vehicles."
Suppliers to the auto industry reinforce that view, noting that safety options such as laminated glass and side-impact protection air bags are available on dozens of models. "From a technical point of view, both systems are ready to go" to help meet a new crash worthiness standard, said Michael Sanders, Dupont Co.'s global director for automotive safety.
The auto industry was successful lobbying in the Senate to weaken some of the rulemaking directives, and no such mandates are in the House bill.
The administration, which already has threatened to veto the highway bill because it is too expensive, said it is also "strongly opposed" to the Senate's call for required rules.
"By prescribing specific requirements and mandating priorities, these provisions will delay or interfere with ongoing safety initiatives and may have the unintended consequence of redirecting agency resources away from programs that will do more overall good for safety," the administration said in a statement.
And the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said that carmakers "do have concerns . . . about the overly prescriptive nature of the bill's NHTSA reauthorization positions. This portion of the bill mandates numerous rulemakings in a very compressed time frame and may not be in the interests of highway safety."
A big hurdle for the consumer groups is likely to be the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), the new chairman, generally is not pro-mandate, a spokeswoman said. And the senior Democrat on the committee is Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who has represented a district in the heart of car country for years.
But the consumer groups already are lobbying hard in the House and said they are unfazed by the odds. They cite the success of the TREAD Act and the high cost of highway injuries and fatalities.
"It's not over until it's over," Claybrook said. "A lot of members in the House would like their heads protected in a rollover and the roof crush standard hasn't been updated for 30 years."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company