Caught in the Motor Vehicle Safety Act

The reviews on the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010 are coming in and we’re not sure, but there may be enough opposition to start a 1,000,000 People Strong Against the Waxman/Rockefeller Bill group on Facebook.

The legislation, proffered by Rep. Henry Waxman’s Energy and Commerce Committee and Sen. John Rockefeller’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation would require NHTSA to establish four new standards to prevent unintended acceleration and mandate system redundancy and toughen the current Event Data Recorder standard. The legislation would also establish a new Center for Vehicle Electronics and Emerging Technologies and arm the agency with bigger civil penalties and the authority to order a recall in the case of imminent threat of injury and death. It proposes to give the public more information in the Early Warning Reports – changing the presumption of disclosure from major secrecy to maximum disclosure.

Among the detractors are the usual suspects who think the proposed legislation goes way too far and those who think it is horribly inadequate. Republicans headed the too-much-legislation group. The vote at the House committee was 31-21 divided along party lines. (The Senate Committee has not yet voted on it.) In news accounts, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the ranking minority member of the House Commerce and Energy Committee called it, “a very bad, bad bill. It’s certainly not good for the automotive industry in America.”

The Automotive Service Association was amassing its members to fight a proposal to add a right to repair provision in the Senate version, which would penalize manufacturers who don’t make repair and diagnostic information readily available to independent repair shops.  The ASA said the provision isn’t necessary in the wake of a 2002 voluntary agreement, brokered by the National Automotive Service Task Force, which has taken care of the problem. The task force is a joint venture among automakers, the service, equipment and tool industry to improve the sharing of repair information and customer service.  Right-to Repair supporters, such as the Tire Industry Association and the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association say that the task force does not represent them and that the information gap remains sufficiently wide.

So far, the too-much crowd has made some progress watering down the bill by removing some of the rulemaking deadlines, adding language to some standards which would allow the Secretary of Transportation to scuttle them as “unnecessary,” and changing the wording of rulemakings designed to “prevent” unintended acceleration to “mitigate” SUA.

This will, no doubt, please the forces of not-enough, i.e., safety advocates, even less than the original bill. They complain that the proposed standards are insufficient to prevent future episodes of sudden acceleration because they do not ensure that death reports submitted to NHTSA are documented; that the public has ready access to defect information affecting their safety; that civil and criminal penalties are adequate; that NHTSA and automakers are not held to the highest level of ethical conduct.

A letter signed by former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook, Jacqueline S. Gillan, of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety, Jack Gillis of Consumer Federation of America, Janette Fennell of and Andrew McGuire of the Trauma Foundation made 13 helpful (Read the letter here) suggestions to strengthen the bill. Among them: giving NHTSA the authority to issue criminal sanctions against intentional corporate misconduct, elimination of the conflict-of-interest at the NHTSA test site, which is actually owned by Honda; refine and expand the reporting categories for EWR data; disclose ex-parte meetings with manufacturers during defect investigations; compel NHTSA to actually issue a final rule for a new electronics standard; and specify in the legislation which elements of Event Data Recorder must be included in a new mandatory standard.

We do agree that the details matter. As for the bill being very, very bad for the auto industry, there isn’t a regulation that the OEMs haven’t characterized as very, very bad for them. Safer vehicles, however, are always good for consumers.