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Congress Considers Safety Loopholes in Highway Bill

2014 was supposed to be the year where lawmakers realized that providing deference and preferential treatment to the industries they are charged with regulating resulted in far-reaching vehicle safety problems. 2014 was marked by two of the largest auto recalls in U.S. history. First, the General Motors (GM) ignition switch defect emerged onto the scene after festering and developing since approximately 2002. But the time the problem was addressed by the company, the defective ignition switches had been broadly deployed in a myriad of popular vehicles by the time new CEO Mary Barra addressed the issue in February of 2014.

One major recall in a year due to a defect that produced at least 124 deaths, should be enough to make lawmakers realize that something had gone wrong in the regulatory regime, but just several months later in June of 2014 the Takata defect emerged when NHSTA opened a probe. While Takata insisted that nothing was wrong with its airbags for months, the company recently agreed to a consent order with NHTSA over its actions regarding the investigation and recall. As part of the consent order, Takata admitted that the company had detected an airbag safety defect but failed to implement a corrective plan to address the defect in a timely manner. The company also admitted that it had misled NHTSA investigators about the defect by providing inaccurate or selective data.

And yet, despite the events of 2014, lawmakers appear poised to include industry-friendly provisions inimical to safe vehicles and safe highways.

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National Automobile Dealers Association Argues that Defective Cars are Not a Public Threat

National Automobile Dealers Association has asked members to write letters to lawmakers and had a number of supporters testify before Congress. Many of these individuals made statements along the lines of NADA spokesman Jared Allen who remarked, “Dealers agree that all safety defects need to be repaired, but not all safety defects present an immediate danger to drivers.” They argued that since only about 9 percent of recalls are accompanied by a stop-drive order, defects are not a threat to the public safety. While this may or may not be true for the 91 percent of defects that did not have a stop-drive order, defects accompanied by a stop-drive order are undoubtedly a risk to public safety and increases the likelihood of an auto wreck.

Bill Would Continue Exemption for Recalled Used Vehicles, Conceal Safety Stats from the Public, and Jeopardize Safety Improvements

The current bill would continue the exemption enjoyed by used vehicle dealers that permits them to sell used cars and trucks despite unaddressed safety recalls. This provision has been written into the bill despite NADA spokesman Jared Allen’s assurance that, “There isn’t a dealer out there that would sell or loan a vehicle they believed to be unsafe to drive.” While there is some room to reconcile these views, the fact remains that defective vehicles should be repaired.

The House version of the bill is slated to reduce NHTSA’s vehicle safety budget by $15 million in each of the next 6 years. Furthermore, the House version of the bill would also set forth an additional exception to the commercial trucking hours of service (HOS) rest rules. The 34-hour restart provision of the rest rules have been suspended since last winter due to trucking industry lobbying and an amendment passed by Maine Senator Susan Collins.

While neither the House or Senate version of the bill contains criminal penalties for executives who knowingly violate safety rules, the Senate version of the bill is slightly more palatable than the House version. The House version of the bill would prohibit car rental companies from renting cars, trucks, and vans with open safety defects. However, loaner vehicles provided to consumers during routine maintained would be exempted from this requirement. In a blow to transparency, the Senate version of the bill would also remove commercial trucking company’s safety scores from public view. This means that consumers would be left without a source to compare the safety of various busing and trucking companies.

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While nothing has been finalized regarding the highway bill, it is important to note that both Democrats and Republicans have pledged that this will not be a stop-gap measure. Rather, this bill will set highway and vehicle safety policy for the next six years. Concerned individuals are encouraged to contact their Senator and Congressperson. Congress must reconcile these bills and have a final draft sent to the President for signature prior to the December 4, 2015, funding deadline.

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