WASHINGTON -- A Senate panel will vote tomorrow on a broad vehicle safety bill that has been modified to satisfy the auto industry and more closely track the House legislation crafted after Toyota's safety recalls.
West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, plans to introduce an amendment tomorrow that would make many of the changes in the original legislation that were sought by the industry, a copy of the 44-page document shows.
The amendment would ease requirements on brake override systems, black-box technology, and pedal placement -- and would reduce maximum fines for safety violations. It also would give automakers the right of administrative appeal if regulators order immediate recalls.
“The committee has done good work in making the bill a good bill, a much-improved bill,” said Michael Stanton, president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, which represents domestic and foreign automakers.
Going to the floor
The Commerce Committee is expected to vote tomorrow to send the measure to the Senate floor. The House version was sent to that chamber's floor last month after it was scaled back in response to industry lobbying. Congressional passage is expected by the fall.
Only two differences of note remain in the bills.
Although both the House and Senate panels have restored caps on fines that can be imposed for safety violations, the House measure would raise the maximum from $16.4 million to $200 million. The cap in the Senate bill would be $300 million.
In addition, the House bill would phase in a $9-a-vehicle fee on manufacturers to help beef up funding for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Senate measure doesn't have this provision.
“The user fee falls outside of the budgetary process that NHTSA and the rest of the administration has to go through,” said Annemarie Pender, a spokeswoman for the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers. “NHTSA's operations should continue to get its funding through the appropriations process -- not tax automobile consumers to fund the agency.”
Both bills still would require installation of brake override systems and event data recorders, or black boxes, in new vehicles, following the massive sudden-acceleration problems of Toyota Motor Corp.
But the override systems, which cut engine power when both the gas and brake pedals are depressed, no longer would have to meet vehicle stopping-distance standards under either bill.
No 75-second recordings
And the black boxes, used by investigators and plaintiff lawyers to try to identify the causes of crashes, no longer would have to be water-resistant or provide 75-second recordings around the time of the accident,
Dave McCurdy, CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents domestic and foreign automakers, had warned that those black-box specifications could add thousands of dollars to the cost of a new vehicle.
Instead, both bills now leave it to NHTSA to decide what if any specifications to require for these technologies. The federal regulator historically has been viewed as more responsive to the auto industry than Congress has been.
“Our providing more context and background for the committee has been effective,” said alliance spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist.
Every automaker either has brake override systems or has plans to introduce them.
As for black-box technology, two of every three new vehicles are equipped with it, a NHTSA spokeswoman said. The only vehicles without it are primarily those made by German manufacturers Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and BMW and by small companies such as Ferrari and Jaguar.
Congress' legislative push followed Toyota's worldwide recalls of 10.6 million vehicles since the fall of last year for sudden acceleration. NHTSA is investigating reports of 89 U.S. deaths from runaway Toyotas. The company already has paid a record $16.4 million fine and may get tagged with other penalties, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said.