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Congress steps up pressure to revamp auto safety laws

New bill would increase access to vehicle defect information, authorize heftier fines.

By Douglas Newcomb 13 hours ago

Photo by Flikr user Phil Roeder.In the wake of criticism by U.S. lawmakers for the way the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has handled the General Motors ignition switch recalls, Democratic members of Congress last week stepped up pressure to change the way the agency deals with safety defects and also called for tougher fines for automakers.

A bill called the Vehicle Safety Improvement Act was introduced by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The bill followed a critical report by the committee’s Republican leadership on NHTSA’s role in the GM ignition switch recalls.

The Vehicle Safety Improvement Act would increase public access to vehicle defect and safety information and authorize NHTSA to levy heftier fines and impose other penalties on automakers for violating safety laws. It would also require automakers to give details on potential causes of fatal crashes in communications to NHTSA.

“The GM ignition switch recall proved that our vehicle safety laws must be strengthened,” Schakowsky said in a statement. “This bill promotes common-sense steps to improve oversight and public access to information while doing more to hold automakers accountable for their actions -- or failure to act.”

The bill would require NHTSA to display technical service bulletins about safety defects on the agency's website. All “early warning report” data would be available to the public and NHTSA's requests to automakers for information on fatal accidents would be required to be published every six months.

The bill would also call for automakers to describe to NHTSA the potential cause of fatal accidents and demand that automakers retain records on possible defects for 20 years instead of the current five years. NHTSA would also have increased power to penalize automakers with larger civil fines and the monetary cap on penalties would be eliminated “in most cases” for violations of federal auto safety laws.

“The Vehicle Safety Improvement Act provides a meaningful response to this year’s motor vehicle recalls, which exposed far too many shortcomings in federal oversight of the safety of our roads,” said Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the top-ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee who co-sponsored the bill. “The bill empowers consumers and holds auto manufacturers accountable for illegal behavior that all too often leads to tragedy.”

The Vehicle Safety Improvement Act follows a similar proposal made by Waxman in April, and is the latest of several bills to be introduced this year by Congress to revamp NHTSA and strengthen auto safety laws following GM’s ignition switch recalls. In May, Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Mass., Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., introduced a proposal that called for eliminating the current $35 million cap on auto safety fines.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx asked Congress in April to raise the maximum civil penalty for a violation of U.S. auto safety laws to $300 million -- more than eightfold -- to press automakers to issue safety recalls more rapidly. And in August, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., introduced a bill that would not only double NHTSA’s funding and eliminate the $35 million cap on civil penalties for violating auto safety laws, but would also allow auto industry executives to face up to life in prison for delaying recalls that result in roadway deaths

[Source: Automotive News]

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