GM recall prompts bill that would make early-warning safety reports public

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal: "Timely information can save lives when it reveals lethal defects."
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WASHINGTON -- Two U.S. senators introduced a bill today to expand the public’s access to automakers’ safety filings with regulators, saying federal reforms could prevent fatal crashes like those linked to a defective General Motors ignition switch.

The bill from Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is the first to be introduced in response to GM’s ignition switch defect. It signals that GM’s decadelong delay in executing the recall -- combined with Toyota’s record $1.2 billion settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice last week for misleading customers about the company’s response to cases of unintended acceleration -- could lead to a broad overhaul of the nation’s auto safety laws.

Markey and Blumenthal’s bill would allow private citizens, including safety advocates and trial lawyers, to see the “early warning reports” that car companies must submit to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Timely information can save lives when it reveals lethal defects,” Blumenthal, a former state attorney general, said in a statement today. “NHTSA’s job should be to make life-saving information available, not more difficult to access. This up-to-date, accessible database will be a vital tool for drivers and consumer advocates in preventing future harm.”

The early-warning reports submitted to NHTSA are a requirement of the 2000 TREAD Act, written in the aftermath of the Ford-Firestone recall crisis.

Markey and Blumenthal say the GM case is a sign that the law does not go far enough. NHTSA didn’t open a formal investigation into GM’s faulty ignition switch despite numerous complaints from customers and agency-commissioned crash investigations that suggested a faulty switch could potentially cause airbags not to deploy.

In today’s statement, Markey called it a “massive information breakdown.”

“We need the early warning reporting system to provide actual early warnings to ensure the public is informed and possible defects are fully investigated,” he said.

A NHTSA spokesperson said it is a long-standing agency policy to not comment on pending legislation but added the agency welcomes the opportunity to work with lawmakers to explore ways to improve the agency’s work.

A congressional investigation into GM’s handling of the defect is beginning, with hearings scheduled for April 1 before a House committee and April 2 in a Senate subcommittee. GM CEO Mary Barra and Acting NHTSA Administrator David Friedman are expected to testify.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, along with NHTSA, are trying to determine why cars such as the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion were not recalled until February, when GM recalled 1.6 million vehicles from the 2003-07 model years. The agency has sent a letter with 107 questions to GM and a response is due April 3.

"We're focused on making sure the recall moves forward properly,” Friedman told reporters after a Capitol Hill speech last week. “We're going to be prepared and ready and happy to share all the information we can with Congress."

Markey and Blumenthal’s bill would require that:

• Car companies automatically submit the document that first alerted them to a fatality involving one of their vehicles to NHTSA. The agency would be required to make those filings public unless they are exempted under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

• NHTSA consider early-warning information in investigations and in response to citizen petitions for new standards or enforcement actions.

• NHTSA update its online database to make searches easier for the public, and include all of the agency’s inspection and investigation activities in that database.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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