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Auto bill draft would require black boxes, allow NHTSA to issue quick recalls

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010; A14

All new cars would have to be equipped with "black boxes" that record performance data and federal safety regulators would be granted the authority to order immediate recalls under newly proposed auto-safety legislation being considered by Congress.

The draft of a bill was released Thursday by one of the House committees investigating Toyota's massive recalls for unintended acceleration in its vehicles. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House commerce committee, and Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chair of the Senate commerce committee, have said they intend to collaborate on automobile safety legislation this year.

The draft contains a wide array of provisions. Some require new safety features, such as the black boxes -- called event data recorders -- and brake override systems that allow a driver to stop a car even when the throttle is stuck open.

Other elements of the bill give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration more power to crack down on automakers that break the rules.

"Our initial thoughts on this are that Congress have given us a legislative vehicle that has come fully loaded with all the options," said Gloria Bergquist, a vice president at Auto Alliance, the industry trade association. "We are going to look at each one of these and ask: Where are we going to get the safety enhancements?"

"It's a terrific bill," said Joan Claybrook, a safety advocate and former NHTSA administrator. "It tackles a lot of the key issues."

The bill would create a "vehicle safety user fee," to be paid by manufacturers on each vehicle. The money would supplement NHTSA's budget. The fee begins at $3 per vehicle and increases to $9 after three years.

The bill also increases the fines that NHTSA can seek from an automaker. In the Toyota case, NHTSA could have fined Toyota $13.8 billion for failing to notify regulators of a defect, but a statutory cap cut the penalty to $16.4 million, agency officials said.

The bill does not allow for criminal penalties for automakers that knowingly violate safety laws, however, a sanction that advocates said was necessary to ensure compliance.

"Recent vehicle recalls underscore the need to ensure the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has the resources, expertise, and authority it needs to protect consumers from vehicle safety defects," Waxman said in a statement.

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