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Will Congress Roll Over on Auto Safety? Major Changes Attached to Senate Highway Bill in Limbo

Congress’ ability to make broad auto safety policy changes in the 114th Congress could largely depend on whether both chambers can agree to a long-term highway bill.

That’s historically been the place for sweeping changes to federal auto safety regulations, but partisan disagreement has so far left a considerable amount of legislation in limbo.

Following revelations this year and last that major auto companies — including General Motors, Honda and Fiat Chrysler — failed to properly report and fix auto defects, many in the House and Senate are eager to pass legislation to strengthen defect laws and give federal safety regulators more funding.

Some of those provisions are in the Senate’s six-year surface transportation reauthorization (HR 22).

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee heard testimony this year and last from victims and their families who told horror stories about the effects of companies’ failure to warn of faulty parts.

Numerous pieces of legislation are floating through both chambers, but Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a vocal auto safety advocate, and other lawmakers see a long-term measure as the place for those provisions to find a way to the president’s desk.

“In the last 18 months, we’ve literally had a heartbreaking front row seat — right here on this panel — to what happens when our nation’s safety regulators look the other way or lack the authority or resources to take action against auto companies who conceal defects and fail to correct them [by] putting profits over human life,” Blumenthal said at a recent markup of the safety portion of the Senate’s multiyear bill.

But Congress has repeatedly kicked the can on a long-term bill, instead passing one short-term extension after another. The latest extension passed in May keeps a 2012 authorization going through the end of July. House members have said they will pass another short-term measure before leaving for recess.

The Senate is working on a long-term bill this week, but House leaders have panned that measure. They said they won’t consider the Senate bill and plan to leave for recess Wednesday. The House has already passed a short-term patch to Dec. 18, and on Monday proposed a three-month extension.

The Senate has its own partisan divide over the highway bill’s safety title. Auto safety provisions were the subject of a lengthy markup earlier in July that elicited vehement protest from safety groups and some Democratic senators, including Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Blumenthal.

Blumenthal said at the markup the legislation would constitute “a rollback” of safety law that “misses an opportunity to improve safety.”

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., said he and his staff continue to work with senators on incorporating changes to the safety title, some of which were accepted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

But Blumenthal and others still have numerous auto safety amendments, and, given McConnell’s tight grip on procedure related to the bill, it’s unlikely many of them will come to a vote.

Auto safety groups have also voiced displeasure despite changes. On Sunday, groups including Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and the Truck Safety Coalition called for increased safety protections.

“Without a course correction, our nation will experience the needless deaths of 200,000 people and injuries to more than 12 million during the six year span of the bill,” the groups’ letter to senators said.

Thune defended the safety title of the bill at the July markup and pointed to bipartisan provisions such as strengthening requirements for rental-car defects. He said the bill would also increase funding for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and increase penalty caps for automobile manufacturers that violate auto safety requirements — as long as the agency certifies it has addressed problems identified by the Department of Transportation inspector general.

Those problems include the agency’s lack of complete and accurate vehicle safety data and insufficient guidance on what manufacturers and consumers should report, along with weaknesses in being able to analyze that data.

The Senate bill also would direct officials to begin a pilot program to study the effectiveness of a state defect notification system that informs consumers of open motor vehicle recalls at the time of motor vehicle registration.

Thune said on the Senate floor last week that “not passing the safety reforms in the DRIVE Act would be an incredible missed opportunity for addressing a host of key safety improvements.”

Agencies Flex Muscle

Federal officials have been penalizing law-breaking automakers this year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration faced sharp criticism from lawmakers last year over its handling of auto safety recalls, but this year the agency appears to be bouncing back with a series of historic penalties.

The latest is a civil penalty of up to $105 million against Fiat Chrysler laid out in a consent order Monday. The order came after federal officials learned the company wasn’t doing enough to repair suspensions that could cause vehicles to lose control or mend gasoline tanks in Jeeps that were prone to catching fire.

“Fiat Chrysler’s pattern of poor performance put millions of its customers, and the driving public, at risk,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said in a release. “This action will provide relief to owners of defective vehicles, will help improve recall performance throughout the auto industry, and gives Fiat Chrysler the opportunity to embrace a proactive safety culture.”

Rosekind took charge of the agency last December, after several cases of fatal accidents related to car defects. Lawmakers excoriated the agency in hearings last year for not being aggressive enough in its handling of such cases. Rosekind pledged to be tougher on the car companies.

The Fiat Chrysler penalty includes a $70 million cash fine — equal to one imposed on Honda for failing to report auto safety problems in January — $20 million to meet the terms of the deal, including to improve safety processes and increase public outreach; and an additional $15 million if federal officials discover the company is still violating safety laws or the terms of Monday’s order.

Among the violations related to these defects were failing to address defects effectively or within a reasonable time, as well as failing to notify owners, dealers or the federal government quickly enough.

The Transportation Department’s action follows a July 2 public hearing at which federal officials outlined 23 safety recalls covering more than 11 million defective vehicles.

Fiat Chrysler has also agreed to repair the defects or take cars off the road. More than half a million car owners with defective suspensions can sell their vehicles back to the auto company. Owners of Jeeps with faulty gas tanks can get a repair or opt for a trade-in above market value. Fiat Chrysler has also agreed to three years of heavy oversight into the company’s recall performance, Rosekind said.

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