Vehicle safety bills reflect compromise between U.S. legislators and automakers

By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Automakers have reached a series of compromises with lawmakers over both the House and Senate versions of auto safety legislation aimed at forcing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set and enforce stricter standards, according to records and interviews.

The bills were drafted after congressional hearings in February that pointed to agency weaknesses in handling probes of runaway acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles that led to dozens of deaths and hundreds of serious injuries.

The proposed legislation, known as the Motor Safety Vehicle Act of 2010, would require the agency to set standards for the first time on electronic components in vehicles, increase penalties for automakers who lie or mislead the agency about safety defects and bar agency officials hired by automakers from working with the agency for three years.

Since the bills were introduced, lawmakers have made changes that eliminate or extend deadlines for setting some of the new safety standards; give the transportation secretary the discretion to set rules that had been mandated in earlier versions; and require safety standards to "mitigate" runaway acceleration rather than "prevent" the problem, records show.

A spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said that some of the deadlines in earlier versions of the legislation were unrealistic because research needed to set standards is not complete. Also, she said, legislative language needs to recognize that automakers cannot control all factors that could lead to unintended acceleration.

"We can't prevent a shoe from going under a pedal. We can't prevent people from putting in more than one floor mat," said Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the alliance, which represents automakers. "Prevention becomes a very steep hill to climb."

Officials from Toyota Motor Corp. declined to comment and referred questions to the alliance.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, defended the House bill, saying it would "dramatically improve the safety of motor vehicles." He pointed to requirements that vehicles contain a brake override system and "black boxes" to record crash information, to larger fines should automakers fail to report defects and to a tripling of funds for the agency over the next four years.

The House bill could go to the floor for a vote this week. The Senate bill is scheduled for markup Wednesday in the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Waxman and other congressional leaders said they hope to reconcile House and Senate versions and pass final legislation before the July 4 holiday.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said that the compromises have weakened oversight on some of the same problems Toyota and government officials pointed to as contributing to runaway acceleration. For example, in earlier versions of the bill, the agency would have been required to set uniform standards for pedal construction and placement in two years and automakers would have been required to incorporate those standards in vehicles by 2014. The current versions of the legislation do not spell out those deadlines, and the standards would be set only if the transportation secretary deems it "necessary."

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