A U.S. House committee May 26 passed a sweeping auto-safety bill with a number of changes in the original legislation that had been sought by the auto industry and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.
Amid partisan sparring, a House panel has advanced a sweeping U.S. auto safety bill that critics contend is too tough on the industry.
The legislation, approved 31-21 by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the wake of the large Toyota Motor Corp. recalls, now goes to the full House, where lawmakers hope to pass it later this year.
Toyota has recalled more than 8.5 million vehicles around the globe, leading to the first major review of auto safety laws in Congress in a decade.
Under provisions of the bill, automakers would be required to meet new safety standards to prevent unintended acceleration in vehicles -- a key issue in the Toyota recalls. They also would face new rules for brake override systems and vehicle black boxes and tougher penalties for slowing down a recall.
Rep. Henry Waxman, a Democrat and the committee's chairman, called it a "balanced bill'' that would "dramatically improve the safety of motor vehicles.''
But Republicans said the bill, including tougher fines, was overly harsh on the industry. They questioned efforts to boost federal funding for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and add user fees of $3 to $9 per vehicle to fund NHTSA's safety program.
"If you think this bill helps the automotive industry ... I've got a bridge in Brooklyn that I don't own that I'd be happy to sell to you,'' said Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican.
Democrats said the federal agency had been underfunded for years, limiting its ability to root out potential safety defects.
The bill empowers NHTSA to order a recall if it finds "substantial likelihood of death or serious injury to the public.'' Automakers could present information before the department issues a final order.
Automakers typically conduct voluntary safety recalls but if they disagree with the government on the need for one, NHTSA must develop a case for a recall and then hold a public hearing. The process can take months.
Car companies that fail to promptly report safety defects to the government would face tougher penalties of up to $200 million.
Toyota paid the maximum penalty of $16.4 million for a slow response to one of its recalls. Safety groups have called it inadequate and pushed for stiffer fines.
Auto executives who knowingly provide false information to the government could face penalties of up to $5 million under the proposal.
The new House Energy and Commerce Committee bill, which now goes to the floor of the House, would require installation of brake-override systems and event-data recorders, or black boxes, in the wake of Toyota's unintended acceleration problems.
Regulators also would have to consider standards for foot-pedal placement, electronic systems, push-button ignition systems and transmission configuration.
The bill leaves it to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to decide on the timetable for industry to carry out many of the requirements. The original legislation outlined a time frame that automakers said was burdensome.
The committee also dropped a requirement that black boxes record crash data for 75 seconds, leaving it to NHTSA to decide on the technology provisions.
In addition, the legislation would increase maximum fines on automakers for safety defects from $16.4 million to $200 million, amending an earlier version of the bill that would have eliminated a cap on penalties.
NHTSA also would receive increases in funding and an expansion of its authority, and auto-safety information would become more transparent to consumers.
“The committee addressed a lot of our concerns,” said Michael Stanton, president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers.
The panel divided strictly along party lines in a 31-21 vote.
Stanton predicted that Congress would pass a bill by the fall and send it to President Barack Obama, who has endorsed the thrust of the legislation.
The congressional push follows Toyota's worldwide recalls of 10.6 million vehicles since the fall for sudden acceleration. U.S. regulators are investigating reports of 89 deaths in the United States. Toyota already has paid a record fine of $16.4 million.
A similar Senate bill has been introduced with at least one notable difference from the House measure: It would eliminate the cap on automaker fines. No dates have been set either for a vote by the Senate Commerce Committee or by the full House.
The House measure would beef up NHTSA funding by phasing in fees on automakers of $9 a vehicle and by doubling federal funding to $280 million over three years.
“This bill will dramatically improve the safety of motor vehicles,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the energy and commerce panel.
The Transportation Department also would have the authority to order recalls if it determines that there is an “imminent hazard” of public danger. But the agency would have to give notice to the manufacturer and offer the automaker the right to appeal.
This appeal right, which was not in the original bill introduced by Waxman, had been sought by Dingell.
“The bill is going to be a hard one for the industry to accept, but I believe it's in the public interest and is good overall,” Dingell said.
Although Waxman bowed to Dingell on a number of provisions, he got the committee to add a revolving-door restriction. It would impose a one-year prohibition on lobbying of NHTSA by former NHTSA officials who join the industry.
The bill also contains a new requirement for an alert sound on electric or hybrid vehicles that allows detection by blind pedestrians.
Although the auto lobby got many of the changes it sought, the new bill still left many Republicans dissatisfied.
“I think this is a very bad, bad bill,” said Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the senior Republican on the committee. “It's certainly not good for the automotive industry in America.”
Honda takes action
In a related development, Honda Motor Co. formally announced plans to install brake-override technology in Honda and Acura models.
“We are committed to applying brake priority logic on 100 percent of Honda and Acura passenger vehicles produced for the North American market by the end of calendar year 2011, with our first application coming to market in late August 2010,” Honda said in a statement.
A spokesman had outlined the initiative earlier this month.