It was inevitable that Toyota's unintended-acceleration recall mess would prompt Congress to do something to prevent that from happening again. But no matter how well-intentioned, mandating that automakers make complicated, expensive changes to vehicles would be the wrong thing to do.
Regrettably, the bill planned to be introduced this week by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., is expected to do just that. The Detroit News reported that the bill probably will mandate anti-runaway technology, stop-start technology and event data recorders.
Any technology or equipment that Congress forces automakers to add to vehicles ultimately will be paid for by consumers. Instead of chasing electronic gremlins about which it knows little or nothing, Congress should take steps that can make a difference. For example, lawmakers should:
-- Require quicker and better reporting of suspected safety defects. Under the U.S. system of voluntary compliance, automakers are required to report defects to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within five days. That should be accelerated to include earlier reporting of suspected defects.
-- Require automakers to turn over the vehicles' black boxes, which can provide data about crashes.
-- Impose fines that sting. The maximum $16.4 million that Toyota paid for hiding safety defects pales compared with the $520 million penalty paid by drug maker AstraZeneca for marketing one of its drugs for unapproved uses.
-- Provide funding so NHTSA can hire more engineers to investigate reported or suspected safety defects, especially engineers with electronic expertise.
The way to improve safety recalls is to beef up the system, not add widgets to vehicles.