Lawmakers spar over auto safety fixes

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Lawmakers in the House sparred on Friday over a set of competing proposals to improve the federal government’s oversight of the U.S. auto industry after a series of recalls involving defective car parts. 

Republicans offered a pair of bills in a House hearing on Friday that are intended to address concerns that have been raised by a series of auto recalls that have occurred recently at companies such as General Motors and auto manufacturer Takata.  

Democrats countered that the GOP bills are too lax on automakers and said their proposals offer a more comprehensive overhaul of federal auto oversight. 

{mosads}GOP leaders said their proposals would improve auto-recall reporting and provide extra incentives for car industry whistleblowers. 

“It is unacceptable that there continue to be vehicle owners that have not been notified of a defect or serious safety risk because they cannot be located,” Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing.  

“Currently, we have 50 different state systems to notify consumers of safety issues leading to unfortunate delays in getting lifesaving information out to the right people,” he continued. “I am also troubled that the challenge of notifying consumers could get worse as the development of new technology platforms enable owners to sell vehicles in nontraditional ways.” 

The first GOP measure, known as the Improving Recall Tracking Act, would require the establishment of a national database of Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) and auto registration information to make it easier for drivers to be notified about recalls. 

The second Republican bill, known as the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act, would provide financial incentives for whistleblowers who report safety defects with cars that are hidden from regulators by auto manufacturers. 

Upton, who is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said he is “disappointed that this committee has been forced to hold multiple hearings over the past few years on motor vehicle recalls,” but still optimistic about the auto industry’s ability to turn it around. 

“Everyone knows I’m from Michigan — the auto state — and that is something I take great pride in,” said Upton, who is known to be close to the auto industry. “I believe that cars are safer today than ever before and the data shows that.” 

Democrats on the panel were more skeptical of auto companies, raising recent allegations that German automaker Volkswagen has cheated on federal emission standards by installing equipment on diesel-powered cars to trick regulators into thinking their vehicles were more fuel efficient than they actually are. 

“The law already does requires auto manufacturers to report defects, and here we have a situation of deliberately building in a defect,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who is the top ranking Democrat on the commerce subcommittee. 

Schakowsky said the GOP bills to address the auto safety issues that have been raised in recent months are too soft on car companies and do not go far enough to protect potential whistleblowers. She touted her own legislation  to bolster federal auto oversight as a “broader and more impactful” solution. 

“It increases the amount and accessibility of information auto manufactures must share with NHTSA and the public about vehicle safety issues and provides new authority to expedite recalls if they propose imminent hazard of serious injury or death,” she said of her measure, known as the Vehicle Safety Improvement Act. 

Schakowsky said the GOP’s bills “just kind of nimble around the margins” because they place too small of a burden for recall notfication improvements on automakers. 

“Manufacturers are already able to access the names and address of drivers who are subject to recall,” she said. “The difference in the discussion draft is that those records would be free of charge to auto companies, and yet the bill would impose significant costs on NHTSA and the states with no funding provided to implement the new database.” 

Auto industry groups told the panel that part of the problem with notifying drivers about recalls is convincing them to pay attention to warnings that are issued. 

“Motor vehicle safety is a shared responsibility,” Shane Karr, vice president for federal government affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told the panel. 

“Auto manufacturers are required by law to identify safety defects and implement recalls under NHTSA’s supervision,” Karr continued. “But ultimately, individual vehicle owners decide whether or not to get their vehicles repaired.”  

Consumer groups, meanwhile, sided with Democrats who complained the GOP auto safety measures are too lax on negligent car companies.   

“The GM and Volkswagen scandals make it brutally clear Congress must do more to help consumers whose safety and trust have been violated,” Consumers Union policy analyst William Wallace told the panel. 

“We need bold measures to raise the bar for safer cars and make sure when automakers break the law and cover up the truth, the penalties fit the crime,” Wallace continued. “These draft bills don’t go nearly far enough to make sure dangerous defects are fixed before someone is hurt or killed.”

Tags Auto recalls Fred Upton General Motors GM recall Jan Schakowsky National Highway Traffic Safety Administration NHTSA Takata Takata recall Volkswagen Volkswagen emissions violations VW

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