WASHINGTON -- Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller called today for legislation that would tighten the 2000 federal law requiring more sharing of safety-defect information about vehicles.
Safety advocates said the current law fell short of highlighting Toyota's acceleration problems.
Rockefeller, D-W.Va., concluded the committee hearing about Toyota by also saying new legislation should require automakers to provide the computers necessary for regulators to read electronic black boxes that provide data about accidents.
Toyota has had only one laptop in the United States to interpret the code in these electronic data recorders, creating a backlog for regulators, dealers and consumers trying to find out the causes of accidents.
"The government has to do a better job of keeping the American people safe," Rockefeller said. "We need to work aggressively on this effort, and that is what I intend to do with my colleagues."
One way to improve the 2000 Tread Act would be to make public the investigations conducted by regulators on the basis of information provided by automakers under the Early Warning Reporting System, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. This information includes deaths, warranty claims and complaints.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened hundreds of investigations that are not made public, Ditlow told the panel.
"NHTSA's secretiveness in concealing (these) investigations is unreal," Ditlow said. "The agency just doesn't like the public to see what it's doing behind closed doors."
Last week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held similar hearings about the Toyota defects. Rockefeller was the first of the three committee chairmen to disclose plans for possible legislation.
A number of other senators also questioned the role played by NHTSA in overseeing safety defects at Toyota.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she was “deeply concerned” about the role played by former NHTSA employees who went to work for Toyota on government relations more than six years ago.
Some House members last week said Congress should consider legislation to address this so-called revolving door, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood endorsed the idea.
LaHood said today he thinks that revolving-door legislation "needs to be tightened up." He said, however, that an internal review of the former NHTSA employees who work for Toyota "found no violations for these two employees."
"I think we should have the highest standard possible which would prohibit NHTSA employees from working for car manufacturers for a period of time," LaHood said.
Current law prohibits former federal employees who work for a company they used to regulate from lobbying regulators on issues they used to work on.
LaHood said the law should go beyond that requirement to prohibit federal employees from accepting employment at all for a period of years with a company they used to regulate.
He said the Obama administration prohibits cabinet secretaries like himself from working for companies they used to regulate for two years once they leave office.
"I think it should be longer," LaHood said.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said NHTSA's enforcement has become “lethargic,” “outdated,” and lacking in technology.
“They allowed [Toyota] to hide behind proprietary data,” she said.
In his prepared testimony, LaHood said NHTSA “has a very aggressive enforcement program that searches constantly for safety defects.”
NHTSA investigations have led to 524 recalls of 23.5 million vehicles in the past three years, he said.