Saturday, July 17, 2010

Auto industry pressure limits safety bill's bite

LOS ANGELES — The sweeping legislation that grew out of Toyota Motor Corp.'s sudden-acceleration crisis, heralded as the most important auto safety bill in a decade, has been scaled back significantly in the face of auto industry opposition.
The bill originally would have given federal officials the power to levy unlimited fines against automakers for safety violations, which regulators said could have resulted in multibillion-dollar penalties. But the House version now caps fines at $200 million.

In addition, a provision to set first-ever safety standards for vehicle electronics was watered down so that the secretary of Transportation would have to only consider them, with the discretion to abandon them altogether. The timetable for automakers to meet any future standard was eliminated.

These and other key revisions to the bill have disappointed, but not entirely surprised, auto safety advocates.

They point out that the auto industry, which has spent about $50 million a year on lobbying over the past decade, has a long track record of weakening federal legislation targeted at vehicle safety. More than a dozen members of the House committee where the bill originated come from auto-producing states in the Midwest and South, including Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., the panel's chairman emeritus.

"The auto industry has had undue influence on this legislation," said Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who testified at several congressional hearings. "The industry wanted to change a lot of little words that had a major impact."

Claybrook said she was especially disheartened to see $60 million once designated for improving electronic systems shifted to a drunken-driving research program supported by the auto industry and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Robert Strassburger, a vice president at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, praised the legislation, but said some of the original deadlines were too difficult to meet.

He cited a requirement that would have obligated carmakers to install event data recorders, also known as black boxes, within five years and adhere to certain operating standards. The bill no longer sets a deadline.

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