Senate Dems Unveil Auto Safety Legislation

Democrats are moving quickly on their plan to take a unified approach to auto safety reforms in the aftermath of the Toyota recalls, with Senate Commerce Committee members releasing a new bill today that would quintuple the maximum existing penalties for carmakers who -- like Toyota -- fail to promptly notify the public of defective products.

The Commerce panel's bill, released today by panel chairman Jay Rockefeller's (D-WV) office, also would authorize $300 million in additional funding over the next three years for auto safety enforcement and provide whistleblower protections to car industry employees who notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of possible safety risks.

The lifting of existing caps on per-vehicle penalties is likely to please safety advocates such as Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen, who have called for much higher penalties for automakers found to be in violation of NHTSA standards. Toyota has agreed to a record-high $16.4 million fine for its slow response to the widespread defects found in its gas pedals but did not acknowledge any improper actions.

In addition to the Commerce panel's release today -- check out a full summary of the bill after the jump -- the House Energy & Commerce Committee is planning a Thursday hearing on auto safety issues.

(ed. note. This post was corrected from an original draft that improperly totaled the additional NHTSA funding.)

TITLE I - STRENGTHENING VEHICLE ELECTRONICS AND SAFETY STANDARDS

Safety will come first.  This bill includes strong new safety standards to protect Americans in their cars and on the road,” Chairman Rockefeller said.

The Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010 includes the following provisions to strengthen vehicle safety standards:

· Establishes a Stopping Distance and Brake Override Standard  — This provision mandates a performance standard by which every automobile must be able to stop within a certain distance when the engine is operating with an open throttle.  Automakers may meet this standard through the installation of a brake override feature in which the brake pedal’s input to the engine’s computer always overrides the accelerator pedal’s input.

  • Establishes a Pedal Placement Standard  — To address the potential for out-of-place floor mats and other objects to obstruct vehicle foot pedals, this provision would require NHTSA to issue a rule requiring minimum distances between floor pedals, minimum distances between foot pedals and the vehicle floor, and minimum distances to account for any other potential obstructions to pedal movement.

  • Establishes an Electronic Systems Performance Standard — There are currently no standards governing the safety and performance of vehicle electronics — including electronic throttle control — as a system within the vehicle.  This provision would require NHTSA to issue a rule requiring passenger vehicles to meet minimum performance standards for electronic systems.

· Establishes a Keyless Ignition Systems Standard — Consumer complaints to NHTSA about sudden acceleration often noted that drivers of vehicles with push-button ignitions could not determine how to turn off the engine during an emergency.  This provision would require NHTSA to issue a rule standardizing the means by which a driver who may be unfamiliar with the vehicle uses the ignition system to safely bring the vehicle under control during an emergency situation.

· Establishes a Vehicle Event Data Recorders (EDRs) Standard — Like “black boxes” in airplanes, EDRs would record crash data information to help determine the root cause of a crash.  This provision would require that manufacturers equip all new vehicles with EDRs that record at least the 60 seconds prior to — and 15 seconds after — a vehicle crash and airbag deployment.  To protect privacy, the data on an EDR would be deemed the sole property of the vehicle owner or lessee.

· Establishes a Transmission Configuration Standard — Consumers involved in sudden acceleration incidents noted that sometimes the label for “neutral” on gearshifts did not correspond with the actual neutral position of the gearshift.  This provision would require NHTSA to issue a rule that requires an intuitive configuration and accurate labeling for gear shifting controls, including for drivers not familiar with the vehicle.

TITLE II – ENHANCED SAFETY AUTHORITIES

NHTSA needs strong teeth to stop automakers from skirting safety-related reporting requirements – and to crack down on them when they do,” Chairman Rockefeller said. “Right now, NHTSA can fine car makers who violate the rules only up to $16.4 million – and for multi-billion dollar car companies, that’s like paying a parking ticket.  This bill will raise civil penalties and remove the cap on auto safety fines, incentivizing automakers to report safety defects as required by law, or risk paying the price.”

The Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010 includes the following provisions to strengthen NHTSA’s ability to crack down on car makers and to take unsafe vehicles off the road:

· Raises Civil PenaltiesThis provision would increase the per-vehicle civil penalty from $5,000 to $25,000 and remove the overall cap on civil penalties for automakers that intentionally fail to report vehicle safety defects to NHTSA, or that intentionally provide misleading information about NHTSA.

  • Creates Imminent Hazard Authority — This provision would give the NHTSA Administrator expedited authority to stop further sales of a vehicle if a defect creates an imminent hazard that could lead to deaths and serious injuries.  An affected auto manufacturer or parts supplier would have the right to an expedited review in a federal court of appeals.

TITLE III – TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY

Too often, consumers don’t know where to report vehicle safety defects or learn about new safety upgrades,” Chairman Rockefeller said.  “Sometimes, what little information they have is confusing or poorly organized – like NHTSA’s early warning database.  This bill empowers consumers to know where to go to report defects and to learn more about their cars, and it mandates unprecedented information-sharing, accountability and transparency from the automakers and NHTSA.”

The Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010 includes the following provisions to improve transparency and accountability for vehicle safety:

  • Improved Early Warning Reporting SystemThis provision would require NHTSA to modernize its early warning reporting system, making it easier for consumers to use and understand NHTSA’s online database of vehicle defect reports.

  • Promotion of Vehicle Defect Reporting — This provision would require the placement of a sticker or other notification in a location accessible to the consumer about how to contact NHTSA to report a potential vehicle safety defect.

  • Public Availability of Early Warning DataThis provision reverses the presumption that early warning data is kept confidential unless the Secretary of Transportation decides otherwise – to a presumption that early warning data is made public unless the Secretary decides otherwise.

  • Consumer Notice of Software Updates and Other Communications with DealersThis provision requires manufacturers to give public notice of vehicle software updates.  By requiring consumer notice of software updates or modifications, consumers will be better informed about potential safety issues affecting their vehicles.  For consumers who do not use dealership mechanics, they still have a right to know when they need to have their vehicle’s software updated for safety reasons. 

  • Whistleblower Protections and NHTSA Hotline for Auto Workers — This provision would grant auto industry personnel the same whistleblower protections currently provided to airline employees.  This provision also would require NHTSA to establish a “hotline” just for mechanics and other auto industry workers to confidentially report potential vehicle defects.

  • Corporate Responsibility for NHTSA Reports — This provision would require the senior auto executive in the U.S. to attest in writing that all information submitted in response to a NHTSA investigation is accurate and complete.  Submitting false information could result in civil or criminal penalties.

  • Stop the Revolving DoorThis provision would prohibit NHTSA employees working on vehicle safety from working for the auto industry for three years after leaving the agency, if the private-sector employment involves communication with NHTSA or giving advice about NHTSA.

TITLE IV – FUNDING

We are committed to making sure NHTSA finally has the full authority and resources it needs to save lives and prevent injuries,” Chairman Rockefeller said.

The Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010 authorizes higher funding levels for vehicle safety investigations and enforcement at $200 million in FY2011, $240 million in FY2012, and $280 million in FY2013.  NHTSA vehicle safety operations received $140 million in FY2010.  Higher funding levels would be used to hire more safety engineers and experts at NHTSA, update vehicle crash testing facilities, and to improve NHTSA’s vehicle safety databases.