Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles — The nation's top highway safety regulator on Thursday offered a limited endorsement of a proposed law that would give the federal government greater leverage over automakers by enacting new safety standards and significantly raising the maximum fines for violations of federal safety rules.
The measure would put the auto industry on the same footing as other industries subject to federal oversight, said David Strickland, chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"NHTSA is a strong agency; this bill's authorities would make us stronger," Strickland said at a hearing by the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection. "If enacted, these measures would significantly increase the agency's leverage in dealing with manufacturers."
Although Strickland was generally supportive of the goals of the proposed law, his testimony was surprisingly brief and did not address the substance of the legislation. The Transportation Department was still evaluating the measure, he said.
The proposed law is a response to the Toyota sudden-acceleration problem. It has not been formally introduced, but that step is expected any day.
The legislation, sponsored by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), also would give federal regulators authority to order immediate recalls, as well as set minimum braking distances, mandate event data recorders and order new standards on vehicle electronics.
"The recent Toyota recalls severely rattled the driving public," Waxman said. "This legislation meets the public's urgent concerns."
Rush, the subcommittee chairman, said he was disappointed that NHTSA did not provide more guidance on such a major overhaul of auto safety regulation.
Republicans on the subcommittee raised objections to the specific proposals, saying they would raise taxes, increase spending and create onerous new rules for the auto industry.
"This is being proposed without taking into account what the industry is already doing and without any assessment of whether it will save lives," said Rep. Edward Whitfield (R-Ky.).
Longtime auto industry supporter Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) grilled Strickland about uncertainties that would be created by the proposal. Strickland, for example, acknowledged that it would create unrealistic timetables for new standards and that NHTSA was not asked for its input in writing the legislation.
The auto industry also objected to many of the provisions, saying federal rules already cover many of the issues addressed by the proposed laws. "The penalties must be capped," said David McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
Without a cap, Toyota, which last month agreed to pay the maximum fine of $16.4 million for delaying a recall for sticky gas pedals, could been fined more than $13 billion.
Former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook also testified, saying the law should give NHTSA the power to impose criminal fines. And Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said the proposed law would give NHTSA badly needed financial resources.
"To expect today's NHTSA to adequately regulate the trillion-dollar auto industry is like asking a high school basketball team to beat the Los Angeles Lakers," Ditlow said.