The Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010: A Crisis Well Spent

Congress has never been one to let a motor vehicle crisis go to waste, and the Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration debacle has been no exception. Hearings before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce has revealed some distressing regulatory gaps – such as a federal motor vehicle safety standard for accelerator controls that was established in 1972 and has never been amended to account for electronic throttles.

The committee and its Senate counterpart have introduced the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010, which, if sees passage, will compel NHTSA to establish four new standards and beef up the current Event data Recorder standard – all with the aim of preventing unintended acceleration and requiring redundancies which will allow a driver to control of a runaway vehicle. The standards are:

Pedal Placement Standard

Requires NHTSA to promulgate a new standard that prevents pedal entrapment as a source of unintended acceleration by establishing minimum clearances for foot pedals with respect to other pedals, the vehicle floor, and any other potential obstructions.

Electronic Systems Performance Standard

Requires NHTSA to establish minimum performance standards for electronic systems in passenger vehicles.

Keyless Ignition Systems Standard

Requires NHTSA to promulgate a new standard that requires that passenger vehicles with keyless ignitions systems have consistent means to allow for a driver to stop or slow a vehicle during an emergency.

Transmission Configuration

Requires NHTSA to promulgate a new standard that requires an intuitive configuration and labeling of gear shift controls that ensures the neutral position is conspicuous to drivers who may need to use it in an emergency.

Vehicle Event Data Recorders

Requires NHTSA to promulgate a rule that requires that all vehicles be equipped with an event data recorder that meets the requirements of the existing voluntary standard issued by NHTSA. Requires a second new rule to establish that all event data recorders must be temperature, water, crash, and tamper resistant, to increase the amount and type of data that must be recorded, to make the data more accessible to investigators, and to establish ownership, privacy, and disclosure requirements regarding data collected by the recorders.

This bill is proposed in the grand tradition of political will overcoming regulatory inertia. On many an important safety issue, manufacturers have vigorously opposed any and all attempts to update outmoded safety standards citing the usual litany: This will ruin us! We like your concept, but everything is wrong with your execution; We see no problem here; Don’t worry, we’re on it! Then, NHTSA twiddles its thumbs for decades so that manufacturers don’t get their knickers in a twist and the preventable carnage continues.

The legislation also attempts to strengthen NHTSA’s competence by establishing a new Center for Vehicle Electronics and Emerging Technologies at the agency. It gives NHTSA a bigger stick against automakers who would flout the regulations by increasing the amount of civil penalty NHTSA can seek per violation and eliminate the maximum civil penalty allowed and by giving NHTSA the authority to order a recall if it finds an imminent threat of injury and death. It gives the public more information — changing the presumption of disclosure under TREAD’s early Warning Report to maximum disclosure and an improved public website database that allows users to better search and aggregate data.

From the great moments in auto safety:

Manufacturers could surreptitiously recall a vehicle – or its substantial U.S. equivalent – for a safety defect in a foreign market and never tell NHTSA. This proved to be Ford’s undoing in the Explorer-Wilderness ATX debacle a decade ago. Ford recalled the tires, which had an unfortunate propensity for catastrophic failure, causing the unstable SUV to rollover. When SRS broke the story that Ford was replacing the tires in Venezuela, but not here, all hell broke loose and the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act was born. The TREAD Act also created the Early Warning Reporting system.

In hindsight, it seems crazy that manufacturers were required to fully protect front seat occupants with shoulder-lap belts but permitted to let rear-seat occupants roll the dice with lap-only belts. But that’s how they rolled back in the day. Automakers had to provide three-point belts in front seats since 1968. But, despite mounting evidence of the need for shoulder-lap belts in rear seating positions and petitions from safety advocates and a recommendation the National Transportation Safety Board, NHTSA didn’t take a real interest in requiring rear outboard shoulder lap-belts until the 1980s, when Congress held a series of oversight hearings excoriating the agency for dragging its feet. Amendments to the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 and the Motor Vehicle Cost Savings Act in 1987 required that NHTSA complete a rulemaking requiring rear seat outboard position shoulder belts in the next 14 months. The agency didn’t get around to posting an NPRM until 1988 and the Final Rule was sorted out in 1990. Rear seats didn’t three-point belts in outboard positions until 1991.

Automotive safety for children? Don’t get us started.

In 1974, Australia’s Department of Motor Transport kindly pointed out to NHTSA that the nascent child safety seat standards totally ignored the safety needs of older and heavier children who were too big for child safety seats.  NHTSA totally ignored this rather commonplace observation – for 28 years. It did give rise to a spate of articles in the pediatric journals about Seat Belt Syndrome – the catastrophic injuries to children caused by lap belts. It wasn’t until the grieving mother of 4-year-old Anton Skeen, who died after his seatbelt failed to restrain him in a rollover, began pushing that Congress compelled the agency to regulate occupant safety for older children. Under Anton’s Law, passed in 2002, NHTSA required boosted the requirements from 50 to 65 pounds. And finally, finally in 2004, the agency required shoulder lap belts in all rear seating positions.

For many years, NHTSA operated under a Vegas-type philosophy: What happens in the driveway stays in the driveway. That attitude resulted in child injuries and deaths from non-traffic, but automotive design related problems such as power window strangulations and backovers involving honking SUVs with sizeable blind zones. The agency refused to even gather data on these incidents, because no data, no problem. But activists, such as Janette Fennell of Kids and Cars, entreated Congress to take up the cause, and after five years of lobbying the Cameron-Gilbransen Kids and Cars Safety Act became law compelling the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to – for the first time –  develop a rearward visibility standard, mandate a brake-to-shift-interlock and require power windows to have an automatic reverse feature.

While Congressional investigation has yet to shed light on why Toyotas experience non-mechanical forms of unintended acceleration, we can take solace in future rulemakings that will at least give drivers a fighting chance to avoid a crash in an SUA event.