After a year of record recalls and a number of well-publicized fatalities, federal regulators and lawmakers alike apparently are ready to commit to what the head of the U.S. Department of Transportation is calling “much more muscular” enforcement.
And in a politically polarized Washington getting ready for a long presidential campaign, the issue of auto safety is spurring some unusual agreement across the aisle. That said, proposals from the Democratic and Republican camps appear to be taking very different approaches to solving the problem.
Calling for “much more muscular” enforcement, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx this week said that under new leadership, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is “going to be pretty rigorous,” emphasizing that “If companies fall short, they are going to hear from us.”
NHTSA’s new Administrator Mark Rosekind made that clear in a hearing on July 3rd called to examine a series of safety lapses by Fiat Chrysler. The maker could be facing fines reaching into the $100s of millions due to its handling of nearly two dozen recalls.
(Recall of 700k GM utility vehicles caps a week of major safety problems. Click Here for the latest.)
NHTSA itself has taken heat, however, for its own lapses, including its failure to uncover both the deadly Takata airbag problem and the General Motors ignition switch defect now linked to at least 120 deaths. A federal audit of the agency found problems that “resulted in significant safety concerns being overlooked.”
Rosekind and Foxx have stressed the need for more money, more staff and the ability to come down even harder on manufacturers who play loose with safety than currently laws permit. Both parties appear to agree with the underlying need to do more.
“If the recent rash of recalls tells us anything, it’s that we must do a much better job of protecting the driving public while holding automakers and regulators more accountable,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the ranking member of the Commerce Committee. “As we try to find a way forward on a comprehensive highway bill, enacting these critical safety reforms should be a top priority.”
Echoing the basic call for tougher action was Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, a South Dakota Republic, who said “This is our opportunity to address failures and make agencies more responsive to commonsense public needs and more accountable to taxpayers.”
(NHTSA under fire for its handling of numerous safety investigations. Click Herefor more.)
But how to specifically respond to the safety problem is where the two parties diverge. The GOP on Thursday introduced a new surface transportation reauthorization bill with what has been described as “modest” auto safety reforms. Democrats went significantly further with their own new auto safety reform bill also unveiled on Thursday.
That measure would not only provide more money for NHTSA but set out heftier fines for safety lapses. And it would set new mandates in place, as well, among other things requiring the use of advanced crash avoidance technologies, and even the installation of warning lights on dashboards that would be triggered if a vehicle were to be subject to a recall.
That has become a hot topic in the industry because industry and government records show that no more than 75% of consumers ever come in to have recall repairs made and, in some cases, the figure drops as low as 40%. Such a warning process would require new vehicles to be outfitted with some sort of wireless communications system – but that is becoming increasingly common and may be required as part of a vehicle-to-vehicle communications system NHTSA is already set to mandate in the next few years.
Both bills propose steps meant to boost recall compliance rates. The Republicans want both dealers and rental car companies to notify consumers when a vehicle is brought in for service or when it is being rented. Democrats want to require that dealers automatically make repairs when a vehicle is brought in for even routine service.
Democrats would also create a new crime when an auto executive knowingly conceals a dangerous safety issue – such as the GM ignition switch problem – that “poses a danger of death or serious physical injury.” It would impose jail sentences of up to five years.
As for funding, the Democrats are willing to cough up more cash to expand NHTSA’s staff, among other things. The agency has complained that it simply doesn’t have the manpower to properly track problems through its Office of Defects Investigation.
The Republicans might eventually loosen the purse strings but, for now, Committee Chairman Thune said that, “Given the significant deficiencies uncovered by the DOT Inspector General,” the initial focus must be “on fixing the agency’s problems first.”