Senate GM critics unhappy with Obama transportation bill

Greg Nash

A pair of Democratic senators who have pushed for recalled General Motors cars to be pulled off the road criticized President Obama’s $302 billion transportation bill for not including provisions to make it harder for automakers to hide automobile defects.

GM has been accused of purposely delaying a recall involving 1.6 million cars that were in some cases 10 years old because the company wanted to avoid paying for repairs. 

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said during a hearing on Obama’s transportation bill this week that he would have liked to have seen the administration include his bill to require automakers to release information about fatal accidents as soon as they occur in the broad transportation measure. 

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“What is not in the administration’s transportation bill is a single measure that would prevent a car company from keeping a dangerous safety defect for a decade in the future from being public,” Markey said. 

Markey said his bill would prevent a repeat of the GM recall of vehicles that were linked to the deaths of more than 10 people. Lawmakers sharply criticized the Detroit-based automaker for waiting until February to reveal that cars made between 2004 and 2010 had a dangerous ignition switch defect that caused cars to shut off abruptly or have their airbags become disabled. 

Critics alleged that GM was aware about the ignition switch problems in as early as 2006. 

Markey said his bill would prevent a repeat of the GM recall failure. 

“We’ve seen so many reports about how GM treated consumers who complained that their cars shut down on their own even after GM knew it had a problem,” he said. “It should be clear to everyone here that it is much more difficult to cover up evidence and dismiss consumer complaints if the evidence is publicly available. That is why I introduced the Early Warning Reporting System Improvement Act, along with Sen. [Richard] Blumenthal [D-Conn.], to greatly increase the information made available to the public about potential defective vehicles.” 

Markey and Blumenthal’s bill would require automakers to inform the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as soon as a fatal accident involving one of their vehicles is reported.  

Markey pressed Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to support the auto recall measure during the DOT chief’s appearance before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Wednesday to talk up the president’s transportation funding package. 

“Secretary Foxx, will you support the language that Sen. Blumenthal and I are asking to require the documents that first alerts automakers to a fatality involving their vehicles be provided to NHTSA and made publicly available?” Markey asked the Transportation secretary. 

Foxx responded that he would have to take a deeper look at the proposed legislation. 

“I will certainly take a look at the bill and I’ll also offer our team to provide technical assistance to you and to Sen. Blumenthal should you wish to enter that conversation as this proposal moves forward in Congress,” he said. 

Markey was not satisfied, asking “conceptually, do you have any problem with the information being made public when an accident occurs that leads to a fatality, that the information be sent to NHTSA?”  

Foxx said there were concerns about the privacy of drivers being violated if reports are required to be sent immediately, though he said Markey and Blumenthal’s goal to prevent a repeat of the GM issues was “laudable.”

“In the past, there’s been several challenges, including not the least of which being individual privacy,” Foxx said. “But I think there’s some promise to what you’re proposing and I would offer what I just said, technical assistance and I’ll take a look at that.”  

Markey said he was disappointed in the Obama administration’s response to his proposed legislation. 

“I think it’s imperative for the administration to provide this information from the auto industry to NHTSA so that it is there in the public domain so we can avoid this catastrophe which is affecting hundreds if not more families all across our country,” he said. “I just think that we cannot allow automakers to keep the very same accident report details secret in the future, I wish we were hearing a more definitive answer from the administration on this.” 

Sen. Blumenthal said he agreed with Markey. 

“I want to join in the remarks fully made by my colleague Sen. Markey,” Blumenthal said. “Because I’m lacking in time, I’m not going to repeat, but I do hope very deeply that you will as promptly as possible endorse our bill.” 

Blumenthal said he was upset with both GM and the Transportation Department’s handling of the recalls. 

“My view is that NHTSA really was almost complicit in its laxity and lapse of oversight during the years, in fact an entire decade, when these defects should’ve prompted the government watchdog to be awake and active in preventing the accidents and deaths and injuries that occurred,” he said.