WASHINGTON (Sept. 14, 2000)—Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., is poised to pass legislation before the October recess to expand the federal government´s powers regarding auto and tire safety defects.
Meanwhile, members of the House Commerce Committee are sponsoring their own bill and say they are in talks with Mr. McCain´s office to coordinate their efforts with his and reconcile the House and Senate bills.
At a Senate Commerce hearing on the Firestone recall Sept. 12, Mr. McCain said he would offer his bill for markup in full committee Sept. 20, developing it in collaboration with other committee members. Mr. McCain said his bill will "reform the process used to detect, investigate and recall defective vehicles."
Also, Mr. McCain said he would ask the Department of Transportation´s inspector general "to review the Office of Defects Investigation (within the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and make further recommendations on how to improve its functioning and ensure that it has the resources it needs to ensure the public´s safety."
While the exact content of Mr. McCain´s bill isn´t yet available, it´s likely to include most or all of the wish list expressed by Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater in his testimony.
Mr. Slater said he plans to resubmit legislation sent earlier this year to Congress to strengthen and broaden NHTSA´s powers. The new draft, he said, "builds on the lessons we have learned in the Firestone investigation."
Among the provisions Mr. Slater mentioned are:
* Requiring manufacturers to report foreign recalls and defect investigations to NHTSA. "Due to the lack of this requirement, we did not learn of the problems Ford and Firestone were having in Saudi Arabia and other countries until after we had opened our own investigation," he said.
* Giving NHTSA greater authority to obtain and exchange safety information with equivalent agencies abroad. "We believe that greater interaction with foreign safety agencies will help us get an early warning of problems before they occur here," Mr. Slater said.
* Giving NHTSA full authority to demand and gather claims, warranty and adjustment data from auto, tire and parts manufacturers, as well as claims information from insurance companies.
* Removing the ceiling for penalties on recall- and defect-related violations. The original NHTSA bill would have increased the penalty on individual infractions to $5,000 from $1,000 apiece, and increased the maximum penalty for a related series of violations to $4 million from $800,000.
* Obtaining additional funding for the agency´s safety enforcement program. NHTSA already has reprogrammed $1.8 million of its funds for fiscal year 2001 for the Firestone investigation, and hopes to get the administration to approve reallocation of $9 million total for that purpose, Mr. Slater said.
John Lampe, executive vice president of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., and Jacques Nasser, CEO of Ford Motor Co., both said at the hearing their companies would support such reforms at NHTSA. Mr. Nasser also said he would support McCain´s efforts to remove a provision from the FY 2001 appropriations bill for NHTSA, forbidding the agency from using any funds to develop a vehicle rollover standard.
The day after the Senate Commerce hearing, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., announced introduction of the Transportation Reporting Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act, or TREAD Act, at a press conference in the Capitol.
According to a summary, the TREAD Act would grant NHTSA the authority to require reporting of foreign auto or tire defects and all claims data on tires.
It also would increase from three to five years the statute of limitations on tire recalls; increase safety-related penalties for all auto, parts and tire makers to the limits requested in the earlier NHTSA bill; require a rewrite of the 32-year-old Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 109, which covers passenger tires; and authorize an additional $500,000 for the NHTSA Office of Defects Investigations.
The Ford-Firestone uproar is "a personal issue to me, because I am a Michigander," Mr. Upton said in introducing the bill. "When the integrity of one of our cars is called into question, we want to get to the bottom of it and fix it."
Fifteen of Mr. Upton´s colleagues at House Commerce are co-sponsoring the bill, including Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, R-La., who co-chaired the Sept. 6 House Commerce subcommittee hearing on the Firestone recall with Upton.
More than 20 years ago, House Commerce held hearings on the Firestone 500 recall, Mr. Upton noted. "As I read the testimony from those hearings, a number of things were exposed and identified, but they didn´t take any corrective action," he said. "That´s just what this bill does."
Mr. Tauzin and other House Commerce members at the press conference made it clear that anger at Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford is a major factor motivating the TREAD Act.
Mr. Tauzin, for example, has given BFS and Ford until Sept. 15 to provide evidence that they performed high-speed testing of the recalled tires on the Ford Explorer at Ford´s recommended pressure of 26 psi.
"When we get the safety data, I expect an ugly picture," he said. "I would be very surprised if they tested these tires at 26 psi, and if they did, I would be surprised if the results were very good.
"It´s no good for a company to call a recall when there´s no replacements, and that´s where Firestone left the American people," he added.
Sponsors of the TREAD Act are in contact with Mr. McCain, and will confer with Senate Commerce to obtain a coordinated bill that can be passed before adjournment. The scheduled adjournment date is Oct. 5. A spokesman for Mr. Tauzin´s office said he expected a hearing to be scheduled the week of Sept. 18.
Several other bills inspired by the Firestone recall also have been introduced, seeking criminal penalties of up to 15 years in prison against executives who lie about defective autos, tires or parts.