Efforts to Toughen Auto-Safety Laws Run Up Against Industry Opposition
                    October 6, 2000

                    By STEPHEN POWER
                    Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

                    WASHINGTON -- Efforts to toughen the nation's auto-safety laws are
                    running up against heightened industry opposition and a tight legislative
                    calendar, clouding prospects for changes in the wake of the Firestone
                    tire recall.

                                         The House Commerce Committee unanimously
                                         approved legislation that would establish criminal
                                         penalties for manufacturers who mislead
                                         regulators about defects, require manufacturers
                                         to notify U.S. authorities about overseas recalls
                    and direct the government to devise a real-world system for ranking
                    vehicles' rollover risk.

                    Possible Stricter Punishments for Auto Makers

                    The Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and
                    Documentation (TREAD) Act passed the House Commerce Committee

                         Manufacturers must notify regulators within five working days
                         about overseas recalls or safety campaigns on products also
                         available in the U.S.

                         Maximum civil penalty on manufacturers who fail to notify
                         regulators about safety defects raised to $15 million from its
                         current level of $925,000.

                         Establishes criminal penalties-including prison sentences-for
                         manufacturers who try to mislead regulators about safety-related

                         Department of Transportation to establish a real-world driving
                         test ranking cars, sport-utility vehicles, pickups and minivans for
                         rollover risk.

                    But committee members rejected a Democratic amendment that would
                    speed the process by which regulators assess civil penalties on
                    manufacturers. And some lawmakers expressed fears that last-minute
                    bickering was endangering their chances of passing a bill before
                    Congress recesses for next month's elections.

                    "This thing needs to be completed in a very short time frame, and I'm
                    not even sure we can do that," said Republican Rep. Billy Tauzin of
                    Louisiana, who has led hearings and a congressional investigation of the
                    recall. "You burden this bill with complex, complicated, controversial
                    [proposals], and I assure you, we will get nothing done."

                    Under Attack in Senate

                    Consumer advocates predicted the committee's 42-0 vote would
                    increase pressure for action in the Senate, where legislation intended to
                    give auto regulators new enforcement tools has languished.

                    The measure, sponsored by GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona, has
                    come under attack from auto makers' lobbyists and the U.S. Chamber
                    of Commerce, which view its proposed criminal penalties as overly

                    The bill is being blocked through a parliamentary maneuver called a hold,
                    under which any senator can anonymously block a bill from coming to a
                    floor vote. No lawmaker has stepped forward to take responsibility for
                    the hold.

                    "The American public is expecting the Congress not to leave before they
                    address this important safety problem," said Sally Greenberg, a lawyer
                    for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine.
                    "The auto industry has acknowledged there's going to be legislation,
                    [but] obviously they're going to try to weaken the criminal provisions."

                    House Vote Expected Tuesday

                    Rep. Tauzin said he expects the House to vote on its version of the bill
                    Tuesday. The bill's rollover provision would require the National Highway
                    Traffic Safety Administration to devise within two years a real-world test
                    for ranking vehicles on their propensity to roll over.

                    The agency's current proposal for doing so would rely solely on a
                    mathematical formula based on a vehicle's width and center of gravity, a
                    method that has been criticized by consumer groups and auto makers.

                    Although consumer groups praised the rollover rankings provision, they
                    said the bill's proposed criminal penalties include a loophole that would
                    allow manufacturers to avoid prosecution, under a "safe-harbor" clause
                    that gives immunity to whistleblowers. They were also disappointed that
                    the committee rejected an amendment by Rep. Henry Waxman, a
                    California Democrat, that would allow the NHTSA to assess civil penalties
                    through an administrative law judge, rather than having to go to federal
                    court. Republicans -- and even some Democrats -- said they hadn't had
                    enough time to consider the proposal.

                    Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co. said its Venezuelan unit has decided to drop
                    Bridgestone/Firestone as the tire supplier for two vehicle models
                    manufactured in Venezuela, a move that will sever all ties between the
                    two companies in that country. Instead of Firestone, a unit of Japan's
                    Bridgestone Corp., Ford spokesman Ricardo Tinoco in Caracas said the
                    company will soon start using tires produced by Goodyear Tire &
                    Rubber Co. for both Lazer cars and F350 trucks. "We have serious
                    doubts about the production process of those [Firestone] tires," Mr.
                    Tinoco said. Ford sells approximately 3,000 Lazers and 4,000 F350
                    trucks a year, he said.

                    Write to Stephen Power at stephen.power@wsj.com