WASHINGTON -- A six-year highway funding bill considered by the U.S. Senate today would provide a path for auto safety regulators to impose bigger fines on automakers that violate the law and take limited steps to address loopholes in the nation’s auto recall system, but it would stop short of some of the stricter measures sought by Democratic lawmakers.
Under the bill, as reported out of the Senate Commerce Committee last week, funding for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s defect investigation operations would grow, but only after the agency completes a series of reforms sought by the U.S. Transportation Department’s inspector general. The maximum penalty that NHTSA can impose would double to $70 million, provided the reforms are completed.
The proposed budget increase is in line with the Obama administration’s Grow America Act transportation funding proposal. It would nearly triple NHTSA’s defect investigation budget to $31.3 million. The additional funding would more than double the office’s headcount to 108 employees, including some 22 engineers, plus additional investigators, statisticians and other workers to bolster the department’s ability to detect and analyze safety defects.
The highway bill also would prohibit rental cars with unrepaired recalls from being rented to consumers and would deposit fines collected by NHTSA to the Highway Trust Fund that pays for road projects rather than sending the penalties to the U.S. Treasury.
A procedural vote to begin debate today on the six-year highway funding plan failed, with Democratic Senators voting it down to have more time to review the more than 1,000-page bill.
But if adopted in their current form, the measures included in the highway bill would add up to relatively modest changes for U.S. auto safety after months of loud calls for major changes in the wake of the General Motors ignition switch and Takata airbag defect cases. The proposal also puts the onus on NHTSA to demonstrate that it deserves additional funding and powers, reflecting a more suspicious view of the agency among lawmakers after the inspector general’s scathing audit detailed long-standing deficiencies at the agency that it said undermined its watchdog role.
Auto safety advocates and some Senate Democrats have pushed for more aggressive reforms, many of which were included in a proposal to broadly overhaul U.S. auto safety laws introduced earlier this month by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., with backing from Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Ed Markey, D-Mass.
The trio sought to make it a crime for auto executives to knowingly conceal defects or corporate decisions that could injure or kill consumers, punishable by fines and up to five years in prison. Their proposal also would have eliminated the cap on fines that can be imposed by NHTSA, let the agency ground vehicles with dangerous defects and prohibited dealers from selling used cars with unrepaired recalls.
That proposal was defeated by a bipartisan vote in the Senate Commerce Committee last week, after its backers sought to attach it as an amendment to the broader highway bill.
But the fight may not be over, as Blumenthal and Markey vowed Monday to continue pressing for the used-car restriction on the Senate floor.