WASHINGTON (Oct. 13, 2000) — Get ready for a new instrument panel warning light—one for low tire pressure.
The U.S. House of Representatives has passed legislation requiring low-tire-pressure warning systems on new cars and trucks within three years. The measure is their response to the public outcry over tires that fail and sport-utility vehicles that may be prone to roll over.
But the provision is a gigantic symbol of how the landscape in Washington has been transformed by intense publicity about faulty Firestone tires, especially those that lose their treads and cause Ford Motor Co. Explorers to roll over.
Lawmakers, who in recent years had a virtual hands-off attitude toward the automobile industry, are rushing to enact multimillion-dollar fines and jail terms for auto makers and suppliers who keep safety information from regulators. But they also are including—with almost no debate—new safety requirements that previously would have been subjected to years of discussion and study.
One would require government handling tests to rate vehicles on rollovers. Another would mandate the tire warning devices.
"People didn´t realize how important tire pressure is," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., sponsor of the provision. "Now they do."
Mr. Markey is a senior member of the House Commerce Committee, which unanimously approved its version of comprehensive reform legislation the first week of October. The legislation included the requirements for rollover tests and tire-pressure sensors.
Mr. Markey and other panel members say the faulty tire problem was aggravated by Ford´s recommendation that Explorer tires be inflated to just 26 psi and by the failure of busy and forgetful motorists´ to keep tires up to recommended pressures.
Underinflated tires generate more heat, especially at high speeds, and greater heat contributes to tread separations, witnesses said at committee hearings.
Despite the strong momentum of the comprehensive House bill, its ultimate fate is still cloudy.
Consumer groups prefer a Senate bill´s tough criminal penalties for manufacturers who knowingly put defective products on the market. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says it will fight hard to keep those provisions from becoming law.
Automobile industry lobbyists, trying a low-key approach in the face of the adverse publicity, say they are working with lawmakers and their staffs to, in their view, "improve" the bills.
Congress delayed its planned adjournment for the year from Oct. 6 until Oct. 14, but even another week leaves little time for the differences to be resolved. And still the pressure to act continues.
"The American public is expecting Congress to not leave here before they address this critical public safety problem," said Sally Greenberg, senior product safety counsel with Consumers Union, the group that publishes Consumer Reports magazine.
Mr. Stoffer covers Washington affairs for Automotive News, a sister publication of Tire Business.