A Little Safety, But Not Too Much, Says the Car Industry

Henry Waxman

The first hearing on a wide-ranging auto safety bill took place in the House yesterday, and the typical battle lines formed. Republicans and industry representatives said that Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D., Calif., right) bill, the subject for debate, was just going too far.

Waxman’s bill would greatly empower the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to order recalls for safety defects and stop all manufacturing, sales, and marketing of vehicles that present an “imminent hazard to public safety.” David Strickland, NHTSA chief, said that such a law would bring the agency into line with other consumer protection agencies.

Dave McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, took exception, suggesting the provision could well violate the Constitution’s due process clause. He also “blasted the proposed $250M maximum fine for auto executives” as unfair and excessive. A number of Republicans joined in the chorus.

Prius crash testAnd there was more carping about the bill’s proposal to uncap the fining limits (civil penalties) that NHTSA can impose. That is, the $16.4 million that Toyota paid recently might, under this bill, have gone as high as $69 billion.

Waxman’s bill (a similar proposal is under way in the Senate, authored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D., W. Va.) calls for brake override systems to stop runaway vehicles and black box data recorders to record information before and after a crash. McCurdy and company said they could support these provisions.

The bill would also beef up NHTSA’s enforcement budget by putting a $3 fee on all new cars sold, plus give consumers new rights to appeal rejection of their safety complaints.

I don’t think the Waxman bill will pass in anything like its present form, particularly the provision to remove all limits on fines. Is it another case of government encroachment on individual (i.e., manufacturer) liberties? Sure it is. But as the chairman of the subcommittee holding the hearing said, if stricter laws had been in place, you might not have had the recall of 9-million-plus Toyotas, and lives might have been saved.

After 20 years and more, are we finally going to get meaningful car safety legislation? Give us your thoughts.


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  1. Although I’m a constant supporter of driver training and licensing reforms, safety systems in vehicles are excellent ways to help mitigate mechanical shortcomings and driver failure. Would you willingly drive a car made in 1936 as your daily family car? I hope not. That’s because your modern car has safety improvements incorporated at every level of the vehicle. These safety improvements help prevent crashes by mitigating driver errors, and help mitigate the severity of a crash when one occurs. I’ll remind everyone that the US auto industry has fought, tooth and nail, virtually every safety, efficiency and environmental improvement and most have had to be legislated. As an end result, the industry record should show that only profits matter to US car companies and they are willing to trade you and your family’s lives and health to make a buck.

    Toyota’s recent example of inexcusable lapses in engineering and safety programs (and internal documents recently revealed) should demonstrate that car companies are willing to manipulate government agencies, lie to regulators and the public, and pump up profits by risking their customer’s lives. They don’t fear regulators because they stand to make more money than it costs in fines. There should be no limit on fines other than a stated percentage of annual profits. If a company like Toyota can be forced to hand over their ill-gotten profits, it may serve to act as an incentive to act responsibly.

  2. @
    Tim, thanks for these thoughtful comments; I couldn’t agree more. Though better driver training, licensing and tougher penalties all make good rational sense, I don’t see them happening. Do you? People are too enamored of their automotive freedoms to submit to more “personal regulation.”

  3. BTW, for the sake of balance, I support the $3 NHTSA fee. The “stop-sale” provision might work if manufacturers could appeal, either before the order with a time limit for resolution, or after. Black boxes could help forensic investigations, but raise privacy concerns. The “individual liberty” argument is the same old conservative, anti-regulation smokescreen. This is a safety and economics question.

  4. The problem with allowing unlimited fines and penalties is that this will lead mfrs. to do too much defensive engineering against extremely rare failure conditions. This will do little to improve safety but will raise car prices and make cars less flexible, more complex, and more expensive to maintain.

    Cars are the safest and most capable they ever have been. Before mandating complex new brake override systems, it’s time to emphasize better driver training and emergency handling skills in the population. Better overall skills will make our roads a lot safer, for lower overall cost.

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