WASHINGTON - Would a multibillion-dollar car company be less likely to violate a federal safety standard if it faced a $925,000 fine instead of an $880,000 penalty?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says yes.
NHTSA, in proposing a boost in the maximum it can collect for a series of related safety violations, says the hike is needed to 'enhance the deterrent effect of these penalties.'
Privately, agency officials say they are trying to use what little leeway they have under federal law to make up for years of stagnant penalties.
Congress set the maximum at $800,000 in 1974. If it had kept pace with inflation, it would be about $2.45 million by now, NHTSA points out.
New federal laws in 1990 and 1996 allowed agencies to make increases - but by no more than 10 percent. NHTSA took advantage of that option in 1997 and raised all its fines by an across-the-board 10 percent. The maximum for a series of related violations went up to the current $880,000.
The laws also provide for further adjustments at least once every four years.
This time NHTSA wants to raise just four of its penalties, by about 4 percent, with some liberal rounding. One is the fine for a series of related safety violations. The others are for odometer tampering, violating bumper standards and failing
to provide crashworthiness information.
'Why bother?' said consumer advocate Ralph Nader. He contended the fines, a mere 'slap on the wrist,' are kept low by the industry's protectors in Congress.
NHTSA last tried to collect the maximum penalty in 1995, when the agency said the seat belt anchors for the Dodge Stratus and Chrysler Cirrus were substandard.
The former Chrysler Corp. replaced the anchors but last year got a federal court to overturn the ruling.