By STEPHEN POWER
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WASHINGTON -- The Senate approved a bill to overhaul the nation's
auto-safety laws, responding to concerns raised by the Firestone tire
recall, and sent it to President Clinton for his signature.
The measure, which passed without opposition
in the House early Wednesday, is the first major
legislation in years to address gaps in
auto-safety laws. It imposes new reporting
requirements on auto makers and establishes
jail sentences for those who mislead regulators about safety defects.
But Democrats complained the bill contains loopholes that would shield
executives from prosecution, and unsuccessfully sought to put off a
The Senate's action disappointed consumer-safety groups, who had
been lobbying for a tougher measure, sponsored by Sen. John McCain
(R., Ariz.), that would have imposed criminal penalties on manufacturers
who knowingly market defective products that result in deaths or
injuries. But that measure was stymied amid objections from
auto-industry lobbyists and their allies, who said it would criminalize
"This is trial lawyers against automotive interests," Sen. McCain said
speech on the Senate floor. "It's wrong. I don't know how you go back
to the American people and explain we couldn't get together to pass
legislation to save lives and prevent injuries."
Sen. McCain later offered the House bill as a compromise, after his bill
was blocked through a parliamentary maneuver known as a hold, under
which lawmakers can anonymously halt action on a bill. Only one
senator, George Voinovich (R., Ohio), has acknowledged having blocked
the measure, although his office said he withdrew his objections based
on an agreement that Sen. McCain would change some language in the
The Senate also passed the bill without opposition on a voice vote.
Earlier in the day, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater had written
to Sen. McCain to urge him to act on the House bill, calling it "critically
needed legislation." While conceding that he preferred his own bill, Sen.
McCain said the compromise bill would not weaken existing law and
includes new safety requirements.
Some of those requirements were unthinkable for auto lobbyists just a
few months ago. For instance, the bill would require the National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration to develop regulations mandating
systems that would warn drivers if tires are underinflated. It also directs
regulators to devise real-world tests that assess vehicles' propensity to
roll over. The agency's current proposal for doing so relies on a
mathematical formula involving the vehicle's width and center of gravity
-- a method that both consumer groups and industry lobbyists had
"There are some positive provisions in the House bill, no question," said
Sally Greenberg, an attorney for Consumers Union, which publishes
Consumer Reports. "It's just unfortunate that senators who expressed
concerns about specific provisions … had no opportunity to offer
amendments to improve the legislation."
With Congress set to recess soon for the fall elections, consumer
advocates and business groups had pressed hard to shape new laws
following congressional hearings on the Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.
Write to Stephen Power at firstname.lastname@example.org