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
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
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 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 email@example.com