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House, Senate Pass Auto Safety Bill, But Details Still to Come

Congress: The measure calls for early reporting of defects and instituting a realistic test for rollover propensity.


WASHINGTON — Congress on Wednesday approved the most far-reaching federal auto safety legislation in decades, but advocates and critics alike said its success depends on some of the very parties criticized in the Firestone tire investigation.

Government regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, experts and lobbyists from the auto industry will play a central role in fleshing out the details of sweeping new consumer protections.

Approved on voice vote first by the House and then the Senate, the bill would require NHTSA to draft new regulations on a host of issues including early reporting of possible defects, notification of foreign recalls, modernizing the 30-year-old tire safety standard, requiring a low tire pressure warning system in new vehicles, instituting a realistic test for rollover propensity and even creating a rating system for child seats.

It would also increase civil fines for failing to comply with auto safety requirements and criminal penalties for misleading the government about problems that cause death or injury. The maximum civil fine would rise from $925,000 to $15 million and criminal violators could face up to 15 years in prison.

But the details of the reporting requirements, tire safety standards, rollover tests and other provisions that directly affect the quality of products purchased by consumers remain to be worked out through a regulatory process that is essentially a formal dialogue among regulators, industry and consumer groups--with the latter sometimes complaining that their voices are not fully heard.

Congress has set deadlines of a year to 19 months for the new regulations.

"The bill requires a number of steps that we will see played out in the normal rule-making process and we think that is very appropriate for this issue," said Bruce Josten, a senior lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which had fought to postpone the legislation but ended up accepting the House-written bill that ultimately passed the Senate.

Consumer groups, which had favored more far-reaching criminal penalties and more specific reporting requirements in a Senate committee bill, were split about the legislation's importance. Public Citizen, founded by Ralph Nader, opposed the legislation. But others were not as critical.

"It's a mixed bag," said Sally Greenberg, a lawyer for Consumers Union, publishers of Consumer Reports. "We think the criminal provisions in the Senate bill were stronger and clearer. [But] the dynamic rollover testing for the first time in history is a major victory for consumers and the reporting requirements and increased civil penalties are a step forward."

Nonetheless, the legislation marked a dramatic turnaround for the Republican-led Congress. Earlier this year, NHTSA had been unable to find a lawmaker to sponsor a meek set of proposals including modest increases in civil penalties.

Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater called the bill "critically needed" and said he "strongly supported" its passage, indicating that President Clinton would sign the legislation.

Firestone recalled some 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and 15-inch Wilderness AT tires on Aug. 9, amid a NHTSA investigation of tire failures that had caused scores of serious accidents.

Criminal penalties were the most hotly debated part of the bill. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), author of the Senate committee version, sought to impose jail sentences on company officials who deliberately allowed a defective product to be sold.

But the auto industry howled in protest, pointing out that what constitutes a "defect" is not defined anywhere in federal law and is often the subject of years of debate among engineers.

The House bill took a different approach--increasing existing penalties for lying to or misleading the government. That proved more acceptable to the industry.

"That creates a bright line where an officer of a company knows he or she is committing a criminal act if they knowingly manipulate data for the purpose of deceiving," said Mike Stanton, a senior lobbyist for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "Greater care and scrutiny will be given to the data now because you are talking 15 years."

McCain accepted the House language after other senators blocked his bill from a vote. Nonetheless, he called the final bill "a major step forward [that] will save lives and prevent injuries."

However, auto companies and federal safety officials are laying the groundwork for a long debate over what the new rules will require. For example, on the issue of early reporting, companies may want to limit the information to customer complaints. But consumer groups believe the industry should report lawsuits and even accidents that companies are aware of. NHTSA will have to sort out the final requirements.

"We're going to have to be hammering out the fine print in order to make it work," said auto lobbyist Stanton.

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