Alleged violations of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act by Fiat Chrysler have sparked fresh calls for the Obama administration to increase federal oversight of the American auto industry.
Fiat Chrysler was recently fined $105 million by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for allegedly failing to properly notify drivers, car dealerships and federal regulators about recalls that affected about 11 million vehicles. The company has also been accused of neglecting to repair cars in a timely fashion, as required by a 1966 law.
A pair of Democratic senators is pushing the agency to increase requirements for all U.S. auto companies to report issues involving recalled car parts, citing the Fiat problems and other recent recalls, including from General Motors and from automotive parts manufacturer Takata Corp.
"Recently, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) was found to have violated the Motor Vehicle Safety Act in the way it executed the 23 vehicle safety recalls covering more than 11 defective vehicles," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyBiden's FDA nominee advances through key Senate committee Overnight Energy & Environment — Manchin raises hopes on climate spending Warren, Democrats ask federal government to resume tracking breakthrough cases MORE (D-Mass.) wrote in a letter to NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind.
"As a result, NHTSA has taken unprecedented enforcement action to fine and increase oversight of the automaker, and specifically to provide NHTSA with comprehensive reporting on each death or injury incident that is reportable to NHTSA," the lawmakers continued.
"This enforcement action is an improvement over the status quo, and it follows some of the measures that we have put forth in the Early Warning Reporting Systems Improvement Act, as it requires [Fiat Chrysler] to automatically submit documents related to potentially-fatal defects," Blumenthal and Markey wrote. "However, this moves by NHTSA falls short by not disclosing the information to the public, and of course, by only applying to one automaker."
Highway safety regulators in the Obama administration have come under fire for their oversight efforts after widespread recalls at General Motors and Takata in 2014 that involved parts that were first found to be defective years ago.
Lawmakers first took the highway safety agency to task last spring for its handling of recalls at General Motors that affected about 2 million vehicles. NHTSA officials were accused of failing to notice the trend of accidents involving GM's faulty ignition switch for several years before the recall was issued in February.
The agency faced criticism again this year over a recall involving faulty airbags that were manufactured by Japanese auto parts manufacturer Takata. Takata initially claimed the faulty airbags affected about 8 million cars, but the recall was later expanded to include 34 million automobiles.
The senators argue the string of auto industry problems should spur regulators to boost requirements for car companies to report issues with their parts more quickly.
"In light of the 124 confirmed deaths from the General Motors (GM) ignition switch recall and the 8 confirmed deaths from the Takata airbag recalls — and knowing that these fatal defects could and should have been detected sooner — additional rules to ensure transparency and early defect detection are badly needed to ensure the next fatal defect can be remedied as soon as possible," the lawmakers wrote.
"Such a rule making should require automobile and equipment manufacturers to automatically submit accident reports or other documents that first alert them to a fatality involving their vehicle or equipment to the NHTSA Early Warning Reporting database," they continued. "It should also ensure that NHTSA makes those documents, as well as additional categories of information submitted by automakers to NHTSA as part of its EWR reporting, public in an online, searchable database (redacting any information that is exempt from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information or Privacy Acts)."
Transportation department officials touted the fine that was levied against Fiat Chrysler as a sign of the Obama administration's commitment to holding automakers accountable for properly notifying drivers about car recalls.
“Today’s action holds Fiat Chrysler accountable for its past failures, pushes them to get unsafe vehicles repaired or off the roads and takes concrete steps to keep Americans safer going forward,” Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony Renard FoxxBusiness, labor groups teaming in high-speed rail push Hillicon Valley: Uber, Lyft agree to take California labor win nationwide | Zoom to implement new security program along with FTC | Virgin Hyperloop completes first test ride with passengers Uber, Lyft eager to take California labor win nationwide MORE said in a statement when the fine was first announced in July.
"This civil penalty puts manufacturers on notice that the Department will act when they do not take their obligations to repair safety defects seriously," Foxx continued.
Blumenthal and Markey said Thursday the highway safety administration should apply the requirements it is placing on Fiat Chrysler to the whole auto industry.
“The longer NHTSA waits to issue new requirements that automakers automatically submit all early warning documents related to potentially fatal defects and that NHTSA make this information available to the public one a user-friendly website, the higher the chance that the next fatal defect goes undetected,” the lawmakers wrote.
“It is time to recall our defective early warning reporting system and issue new rules to detect fatal defects.”