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Increasing penalties for safety violations will save lives

A page of history may well be worth a volume of logic. So here is a page of history about suffering and death on America's highways and one big reason why it is still happening today. In 1966, after intense press coverage of auto safety problems and of auto industry support for the status quo, Congress unanimously enacted (and President Lyndon Johnson was pleased to sign), the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. The law provided for federal safety standards for all new cars and mandatory recalls for any "safety related" defects in any car sold in the U.S. There are now over 50 major safety standards covering many, but not all, of the potentially dangerous parts of your car.

The safety act is a stunning success story. Since its enactment, it has triggered a reduction in the auto deaths from over 50,000 people a year to about 30,000 per year, despite billions more vehicle-miles driven. Lap and shoulder belts, stronger car bodies, electronic stability control and child safety seats are examples of systems that were mandated and became standard equipment. Manufacturers, at first fiercely resistant to any federal law or safety standards, suddenly realized they could sell safety. And they did, with pitches based on "5 Star" ratings from the Department of Transportation and the "Top Rated" seal of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. They stopped pushing style and horsepower exclusively.

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The safety act and the resulting change in public attitudes toward automobile safety make up one of the greatest examples ever of effective, representative government and of the potential of an aroused citizenry and a responsive Congress, acting through law and regulation, to combat a major national problem.

But that was then, and this is the situation now.

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As good as it is, the safety law includes a big loophole that manufacturers have continued to exploit at the expense of the driving public. The pro-safety people got almost everything they wanted in the new safety law in 1966, except tough civil penalties and, equally important, criminal sanctions for intentional violations by corporations and their officers that threatened the lives of drivers, passengers and pedestrians. Intense auto industry lobbying, backed up by big campaign contributions, defeated criminal sanctions and kept the civil penalties to $5,000 per violation with a total cap of $800,000 for any series of violations. That has been raised now to a cap of $35 million, and the Obama administration wants a maximum fine of $300 million enacted. That is still small potatoes for companies like GM, Toyota and Chrysler, which can make 10 times that in quarterly gross profits. And today's campaign money-drenched Congress shows no sign of even going along with that paltry increase in civil fines.

Criminal penalties, the real way to compel car companies to promptly report safety defects to the public and the government, are even less likely to pass this over-lobbied Congress. Companies that for years failed to report dangerous defects, like GM (ignition switches), Chrysler (flammable fuel tanks), Toyota (sudden acceleration) and Takata (defective air bags) would rather pay relatively modest fines than fix the defects and admit their errors in manufacturing.

So, there is a loophole big enough to drive a Mack truck through in the 1966 federal automobile safety act. Does Congress have the integrity to fix it?

Michael R. Lemov is the author of "Car Safety Wars: 100 Years of Technology, Politics and Death" (Rowman and Littlefield/Fairleigh Dickenson Press, April 2015). He served as counsel to the House Commerce Committee and General Counsel of the National Commission on Product Safety. His email is lemovlaw@verizon.net.

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