The United States has done a fairly good job so far of policing the safety of cars and trucks. The number of deaths in traffic accidents dropped to an estimated 34,000 last year — the least since the 1950s. But that is still too many deaths.
The recall of millions of Toyota cars and trucks because of persistent problems of uncontrolled acceleration has exposed unacceptable weaknesses in the regulatory system. These weaknesses are allowing potentially fatal flaws to remain undetected. Democrats in Congress are pushing legislation to improve regulation and oversight of auto safety. It should be passed into law without delay.
The Motor Vehicle Safety Act requires all vehicles to have a brake override system to ensure that a vehicle can be stopped even if the throttle is open. Pedals must exceed a minimum clearance from the floor to avoid snagging car mats. Electronic control systems must meet minimum performance standards, to be set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And all vehicles must come fitted with recorders that log operational data and help determine the causes of accidents.
But perhaps more important, the bill would broadly change the system of overseeing and enforcing safety rules. That should help the N.H.T.S.A. identify serious problems faster and provide tools to ensure automakers’ compliance with its standards of safety and disclosure.
Both the House and the Senate versions of the bill demand public disclosure of early warning data about defects, which should encourage drivers to report safety problems. They call for the creation of a safety hot line and extend whistle-blower protections to employees of carmakers, dealers and suppliers. To reduce conflicts of interest, both bills have provisions imposing long interim periods before former N.H.T.S.A. employees can lobby for car companies.
Both versions vastly increase the N.H.T.S.A.’s resources — which today amount to a paltry 1 percent of the Department of Transportation’s budget. The House version goes further, requiring that carmakers pay a fee that would start at $3 for each vehicle they sell. The fee would rise every year, to help pay for the agency’s monitoring efforts.
The bills also give N.H.T.S.A. a bigger stick. Currently, the maximum fine that can be imposed on a company for failing to promptly notify the agency about a safety problem is a paltry $15 million. The bills propose raising the cap to $200 million or $300 million. And they establish that a senior company official would have personal legal responsibility for safety reports submitted to the regulator. The Senate version requires that this person be the company’s top United States-based executive.
Automakers support some of the provisions in the bill — like the call for event data recorders and brake override systems, which are already installed in many vehicles. But they oppose the bigger fines and the new safety fees. They argue that disclosure of defect information could reveal confidential information to competitors.
But legislators should not back down on these provisions. N.H.T.S.A. needs vastly more resources to monitor potentially lethal flaws in the nation’s increasingly high-tech fleet. And it needs more compelling fines if it is to persuade carmakers to comply with its rules. N.H.T.S.A. could fine Toyota only $16.4 million for delays in revealing problems with defective accelerator pedals that left the throttle open after being released. That’s pocket change for a company of its size.