The government's auto safety agency is pushing for greater power to order an immediate safety recall of hazardous vehicles under broad new consumer safety protections outlined in draft legislation before Congress.
David Strickland, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said Tuesday the proposal would help the agency take unsafe vehicle off the road by ordering prompt recalls if it finds an "imminent hazard of death or serious injury."
Toyota's recall of more than 8 million vehicles around the globe has prompted the first major changes to auto safety requirements in Congress since the Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. tire recalls in 2000.
Many automakers typically conduct voluntary safety recalls but if they question the need for one, the NHTSA must develop a case for a recall and then hold a public hearing to declare a safety-related defect. The process can take months.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood accused Toyota of being "safety deaf" in its handling of defective accelerators earlier this year, and the agency fined the company $16.4 million for its slow response to a recall.
"If enacted, these measures would significantly increase the agency's leverage in dealing with manufacturers," Strickland said. He added the legislation would bolster NHTSA's ability to "deliver on its consumer protection mission."
Congress began reviewing a draft bill that would push the auto industry to meet new safety standards for brake override systems and vehicle "black boxes" and impose tougher penalties on car companies that fail to quickly report safety defects to the government.
"The recent Toyota recalls severely rattled the driving public. This legislation meets the public's urgent concerns," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is considering legislation.
Republicans questioned proposed per-vehicle fees to boost funding for government safety research and provisions that would eliminate the cap on civil penalties against automakers slow to recall vehicles. Toyota's $16.4 million fine was the maximum allowed by law.
"Some of the penalties, to me, seem like overkill," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. "I don't believe this is the time ... to just pile on the automobile industry or potentially pile on, because they're facing tough times."
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and others, testified it would support proposed standards for override systems that reduce power to the engine when the driver steps on the brake and accelerator simultaneously.
David McCurdy, a former Oklahoma congressman who leads the alliance, expressed support for requiring event data recorders, or vehicle "black boxes," in new vehicles. He questioned the costs, however, noting that a typical airline black box costs more than $20,000.
The bill would require the boxes to record at least 60 seconds before a crash and 15 seconds after, much longer than systems typically found in cars today, and require the systems to be resistant to temperature, water, crashes and tampering.
Safety advocates said the legislation was critical to re-energizing the auto safety agency, which has been criticized for not being tougher on auto companies and pushing them to issue swifter recalls.
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