Automakers Want Overhaul of New U.S. Vehicle Safety Law

In the wake of the millions of Toyota vehicles recently recalled, Congress initiated a new bill called the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010. By the end of July, eight hearings had already been held by Congress on auto safety concerns, and while both the House and Senate have approved similar versions of legislation, automakers are asking for a major overhaul.

The bill, sponsored by Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California), intends to create new motor safety regulations for all upcoming vehicles sold in the U.S. In particular, lawmakers aim to establish new automobile protection standards, increase accountability and improve transparency.

Several measures from the House and Senate bills include:

  • Mandating additional mechanisms for a vehicle's accelerator control system
  • Requiring electronic throttle control systems integrated into each vehicle if a car's accelerator control system fails
  • Equipping event data recorders (EDRs or "black boxes") in all passenger motor vehicles to record details in the event of an auto accident
  • Allowing public access to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) vehicle safety database
  • Establishing an automobile safety defect hotline for manufacturers, dealers, and mechanics
  • Extending whistle-blower protection to employees of automakers, dealers and suppliers who report safety concerns

How Quick Is Too Quick?

As with most proposed legislation, there are two sides to the bill. Advocates are pressuring Congress to take immediate action. At a recent press conference on the measure a daughter of a woman killed in an alleged Toyota sudden acceleration accident in 2008 said she hopes that the "increased public awareness of the problem will help others avoid what has happened to our mother."

Opponents, however, hope significant changes are made to the final bill before it is rushed to the President's desk. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (the trade group representing Detroit's Big Three automakers, Toyota Motor Corporation and other automakers) and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers wrote a letter on July 15, 2010 to the bill's sponsors. The letter maintained the industry's desire to save lives, prevent injuries and reduce accidents, but argued that parts of the new safety act will only "involve more guarded communications and second-guessing by lawyers."

In particular, opponents protest the lawmakers' plans to hold car company executives accountable for failing to properly disclose a safety issue. Instead, they favor placing such responsibility with a designated company safety official.

They also object to the bill's proposal to heavily increase the fine amount assessed to a company who fails to promptly notify the NHTSA of a safety problem. Advocates disagree, however, and say that the increase from $15 million to $300 million is not an automatic number and that the figure is pennies compared to the potential costs associated with the recall.

Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told the Detroit News that the industry as a whole will work with Congress to come up with a resolution as the bill take shape.