WASHINGTON-Pending auto safety regulations must be meticulously standardized, with terms defined as closely as possible, speakers agreed at the Society of Automotive Engineers Government/Industry meeting May 15.
The meeting, held in the nation's capital, featured a panel of experts from the tire and auto industries and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to discuss regulations mandated by Congress under the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act. The speakers-even those from the same side-expressed various feelings about the law.
``We didn't have much of a choice, did we, folks?'' said Donald B. Shea, president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA), regarding the public outcry that led to passage of the TREAD Act.
``But we adopted an approach of constructive collaboration in drafting the best legislation that could be constructed in that climate.''
However, P. Jackson Rice, a former NHTSA official who now represents Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and other clients as an attorney with the Washington firm of Arent Fox, said the TREAD Act was nothing more than a congressional overreaction.
``There was a need to water the lawn, so they got out the fire hose,'' Mr. Rice said.
Most of the discussion centered on the pending ``early warning'' regulation, in which auto, tire and equipment manufacturers will be required to provide information to NHTSA which shows that there may be a product defect.
A key point in drafting the early warning rule is ``the importance of developing a workable, meaningful system that focuses on collecting meaningful information, rather than spilling a mass of data on NHTSA,'' said Jacqueline Glassman, legal counsel for DaimlerChrysler A.G.
``The incremental approach that NHTSA has suggested makes sense,'' Ms. Glassman said. ``We ought to build the initial system, build it right, and then see if more information is needed.''
Injury and death claims, aggregate statistics, consumer satisfaction campaigns and deaths and serious injuries in accidents allegedly caused by defects are among the data that will have to be reported to the agency under the early warning rule, said Kenneth Weinstein, NHTSA associate administrator for safety assurance.
``We may require reporting of other data, but we must specify how we'll use it,'' Mr. Weinstein said. NHTSA can only require manufacturers to release information they already have in their possession, he added, and the disclosure process will be subject to periodic review.
Mr. Shea stressed the need for solid definitions of the terms for information required for release. ``We have a definition for claims,'' he said.
``It's not a verbal complaint, but a written demand received by the tire manufacturer which provides sufficient information to establish its legitimacy.''
Also, NHTSA must define what it means by ``serious injury,'' so manufacturers aren't held criminally liable for withholding accident information, according to Mr. Shea. ``There's a definition in the criminal penalties provision of the TREAD Act that may be sufficient,'' he said.
Mr. Rice said the least discussed aspect of the TREAD Act regulations is how they will affect small businesses.
In many transportation product sectors, ``the majority of manufacturers are small entities under Small Business Administration definitions, and that should be considered,'' he said.