It was government and industry-including the Rubber Manufacturers Association-against consumerists at a House subcommittee hearing on pending reauthorization legislation for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Witnesses, including Donald B. Shea, president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association, and NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey W. Runge, said at the March 18 hearing that a NHTSA funding bill in the Senate put too many mandates on the agency and didn't allow enough flexibility for the tire and auto industries to meet safety demands.
They were countered by R. David Pittle, senior vice president-technical policy for Consumers Union, who insisted that NHTSA has always served public safety best when under congressional deadlines.
The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection is considering the direction to take on its own version of NHTSA reauthorization legislation. The subcommittee's leadership itself seemed dubious about the mandates in the Senate bill.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., ranking minority member for the full Energy and Commerce Committee, argued that ``irresponsible regulation of the automobile will sacrifice important, high-paying manufacturing jobs,'' as well as ``divert(ing) resources away from regulations and innovations that have the most potential to save the greatest number of lives.''
NHTSA has made ``tremendous progress'' with rulemaking procedures in the Bush administration, according to Mr. Runge.
``The process we have developed will produce the best and most cost-effective solutions to our most critical safety needs,'' Mr. Runge said. ``The deadlines imposed with mandated requirements can preclude the completion of necessary research and force premature judgments or the adoption of incomplete or only partially developed solutions.''
Mr. Shea was concerned not only about the Senate bill's mandates but also about unresolved issues surrounding the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act.
He noted that the Senate bill contains a requirement for an accelerated tire aging test, which the RMA and the auto industry already are developing.
``NHTSA should be allowed to consider this work and thereafter develop the appropriate test method and timeline, thereby precluding the need for a Senate mandate,'' he said.
Similarly, the Senate provisions for strength and bead unseating tests ``will not assist the agency or the public in assessing radial tire performance,'' he said. NHTSA rightly postponed consideration of these tests, he added, ``because their analysis found that such tests were not appropriate requirements.''
The RMA is still waiting for NHTSA to answer its petitions on tire pressure reserve, tire labeling and tire testing, Mr. Shea said. And the association also urges the agency to institute a compliance program for tire makers regarding the TREAD Act.
``RMA members alone will spend over $1.7 billion to comply with this rule,'' he said. ``Tire manufacturers who avoid compliance would have a significant cost advantage over companies that adhere to this rule.''
Mr. Pittle noted that highway fatalities in 2002-the last year for which statistics are available-were 42,815, the highest in a decade.