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Bill to strengthen NHTSA proposed

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Sen. Jay Rockefeller

By Gabe Nelson, Crain News Service

WASHINGTON (June 30, 2014) — Pointing to the lapses that led to General Motors Co.’s ignition switch crisis, the chairman of the U.S. Senate committee that oversees auto safety proposed a bill late June 26 that would give U.S. regulators more funding and greater power to deal with safety defects in automobiles.

The legislation from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., the outgoing chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, would give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) authority to order dangerous vehicles off the road, rather than merely advising customers not to drive them.

And it would authorize more funding for NHTSA, with some of that money coming from “user fees” that auto makers would pay based on their U.S. vehicle sales.

The user fees would start one year after enactment of the law at $3 per vehicle sold. They would rise to $6 per vehicle for the second year and $9 for the third year, after which they would be adjusted annually for inflation.

“For the past 15 years, many of us have attempted to bolster NHTSA’s authority, precisely to better prevent tragedies like the deaths caused by GM’s faulty ignition switches,” Sen. Rockefeller—who is not running for re-election this fall—said in a statement June 26. “While we’ve made some progress, ultimately we’ve been blocked from fully providing NHTSA with the adequate resources and authorities it needs.

“Everything we’ve learned in the past months through our committee investigation into GM has made it absolutely clear that it’s time to put our differences aside. We’ve got to act now and support NHTSA if we’re going to minimize the chances of another heartbreaking tragedy.”

Sen. Rockefeller’s bill would also make it illegal to sell a used car with outstanding recall work without fixing the defect or alerting its buyer. And it would give the public access to “early warning” reports that auto makers submit to the agency, as proposed by Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., earlier this year.

The Rockefeller bill is similar to one that U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, introduced in April.

But with Sen. Rockefeller holding the gavel of the Senate Commerce Committee, the odds that auto-safety reforms will pass through the Senate now look significantly better.

Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee, has not endorsed any legislation, saying that the committee needs to gather more information before it acts.

“We don’t yet have all the answers about what changes in our laws, the regulators’ practices or the company’s culture would have prevented this safety defect from lingering so long or harming so many,” Mr. Upton said in opening remarks for a June 18 hearing at which GM CEO Mary Barra testified. “But we will find out.”

This report appeared on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.

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