For the past few months, Congress has been debating an auto safety overhaul to help make vehicles safer in the wake of Toyota’s unintended acceleration problems that led to the recall of more than nine million vehicles worldwide. But due to strong industry pressure and the volatile political situation in Washington, critics say the bill will have a limited impact on auto safety here in the US.
Especially in the midst of an evolving Detroit, which follows the green revolution and a year with an abnormally large number of safety problems, now is also the best time to improve federal safety regulations. “It is unfortunate that rather than getting on board,” said the policy council for auto safety at Consumers Union at a Wednesday press conference, “the automakers have chosen to take” a stance against comprehensive regulations.
In a letter to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), and Rep. Harry Waxman (D-Calif.) the sponsors of the safety bills in the House and Senate, the auto industry took a strong stance against portions of the bill that could hurt their bottom line. The letter said that while they are dedicated to saving lives, the bill “could negatively impact safety by needlessly undermining aspects of and tiling a process that today relies on the speedy identification and remedy of safety-related defects to one that will involve more guarded communications and second-guessing by lawyers.”
In essence, the industry says that reform would mean more dangerous vehicles and a longer wait to fix problems when they occur. Tell that to Toyota owners who experienced unintended acceleration this year, in addition to the families affected by dozens of other recalls this year alone.
One proposed change the auto industry takes issue with is raising the penalty for companies that don’t quickly notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of a safety problem, from $16 million to $300 million. The auto companies allege that this harsher fine would cripple smaller car manufacturers. But the $300 million is only the maximum fine, and would only be implemented in the most flagrant circumstances for the largest companies.
Currently, the fine is so low that it’s in the financial interest of a company like Toyota to hurry the safety process along in order to complete the product. “It’s almost like a rounding error,” said Allan Kam, a 25-year official at the safety agency.
A final vote on these bills has not yet been planned. But this year, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, which represent all major automakers in the country, have already spent $2 million on trying to sway Congress. When that’s compared to the $80,000 spent by the Consumers Union of the United States, it could be an uphill battle for safety advocates.
Photo credit: David Paul Ohmer