Execs who delay safety recalls would face life in prison under Senate bill

McCaskill: "Painful recent examples at Toyota and GM have shown us we also must make it easier to hold accountable those who jeopardize consumers' safety."

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WASHINGTON -- Auto executives who delay safety recalls that result in deaths could face up to life in prison under a new bill backed by a U.S. senator who has been one of the staunchest critics of General Motors’ handling of its ignition switch recalls.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., introduced a bill Friday aimed at improving vehicle and road safety that would also toughen penalties faced by companies that ignore or violate auto safety laws.

According to a summary from McCaskill’s office, the bill would give federal prosecutors more leeway to issue criminal charges over auto safety violations and impose tougher sentences for those violations, “including up to life in prison for violations that result in death.”

The bill, dubbed Motor Vehicle Highway Safety Enhancement Act, would also toughen a number of other auto safety enforcement tools and penalties. It would, among other things:

• Eliminate the current $35 million maximum civil fine that can be levied against companies that violate auto safety laws.

• Increase the cap on individual auto safety violations to $25,000 per occurrence from $5,000.

• Double vehicle safety funding for the National Highway Traffic Administration over six years.

• Prohibit the sale or rental of rental vehicles affected by safety recalls until they’re fixed.

• Require rental car firms to “ground” recalled vehicles in their fleet.

• Allow NHTSA to police how rental car companies’ handle safety recalls.

• Reauthorize highway safety grant funding to states from the Highway Trust Fund for six years.

• Update federal highway safety grant programs.

For a full summary of the bill, click here.

With road deaths costing about 33,000 lives per year, more must be done to increase safety, McCaskill said in a statement.

“Painful recent examples at Toyota and GM have shown us we also must make it easier to hold accountable those who jeopardize consumers’ safety,” McCaskill said.

“For too long, auto safety resources have remained virtually stagnant while cars and the safety challenges they present have become more complex. This bill addresses those challenges by giving safety regulators the financial and enforcement resources necessary to modernize and better protect American consumers.”

Vocal critic

McCaskill, a former county prosecutor, has been one of GM’s most vocal critics during the company’s recall crisis. She has held two subcommittee hearings over the crisis in which she grilled GM executives, including CEO Mary Barra and general counsel Mike Millikin, expressing shock at the most recent hearing on July 17 that Millikin was allowed to keep his job.

Her bill is the most ambitious in a series of legislative proposals to toughen auto safety oversight prompted by GM’s ignition switch recall crisis.

It also draws on elements of several other bills proposed by legislators, such as a May proposal by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Mass., Edward Markey, D-Mass. and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to eliminate the $35 million fine cap, and a bill from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., that would increase funding for NHTSA.

You can reach Ryan Beene at rbeene@crain.com. -- Follow Ryan on Twitter

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