Impending legislation mandates new safety standards

  • 25-Jun-2010 02:53 EDT
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If successful, Toyota’s solution for “sticky” accelerator pedals may help the auto industry convince NHTSA that a new standard—which it must consider under the new legislation—is not necessary.

Congress is moving quickly to pass a new automotive safety standards bill in the wake of the Toyota "sudden acceleration" uproar. SAE International has finished a standard and has two others in progress in some of the areas that the Motor Vehicle Safety Act mandates action. But the fast-moving bill does not require NHTSA (U.S. National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration) to take into account any SAE standard, whether approved or in process.

"NHTSA will hopefully reference the appropriate SAE standard within their regulation when they are developed," said Timothy P. Mellon, Director, Government Affairs, SAE. "They have done that in the past."

In addition to requiring new safety standards, the legislation establishes a new Center for Electronics and Emerging Technologies within NHTSA, imposes a new $3/auto fee on manufacturers (rising to $9 after three years) to help increase NHTSA's budget, increases civil penalties, and gives NHTSA the authority to expedite a recall in the case of "an imminent hazard of death or serious injury." That last provision is a response to the Toyota sudden acceleration problem.

"Our position is that the bill is still in need of improvement, but it has certainly moved in the right direction," said Wade Newton, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

One auto industry executive who wished to remain anonymous, said the bill, originally introduced in late April as a draft, "looked like it was written by the trial lawyers." But he agreed with Newton that the similar House and Senate bills going to the respective floors for a vote are much improved. He cited a provision in the draft that would have allowed a complainant to obtain almost unlimited judicial review of a NHTSA decision not to act on a complaint about an alleged vehicle problem. The revised bill gives NHTSA wider latitude to prevent that from happening, he added.

It was unlikely a bill would clear both floors and land on President Obama's desk prior to the July 4 congressional recess.

Despite the fact that some odious provisions and unrealistic deadlines have been removed from the bill, it is still likely to include a measure that both the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers (AIAM) and the Alliance opposed from the start. Those include authority for NHTSA to issue "imminent hazard" recalls, assess increased civil penalties, and institute new-car fees. In addition, a Republican effort in the House Energy and Commerce Committee to include provisions to clean up the NHTSA complaint database were beaten back by Democrats.

The way things stand now, anyone can go into the database and input misleading information, according to the executive. "When someone says there have been 2000 incidents and umpteen deaths, there is no way to verify that. There was one instance of a report stating there were 99 deaths. Another reported the death of a dog. Trial lawyers want to keep that database as wide open as possible."

Nonetheless, the versions the House and Senate will vote on represent improvement from the draft bill circulating in late April. Some of the standards requirements have been softened. In some instances, the timetable for NHTSA to promulgate a standard has been relaxed. In others, the bill now says NHTSA should "consider" whether to establish a new standard. That is the case with a pedal-placement standard and minimum performance standards for electronic systems in passenger vehicles. Otherwise, the bill requires new or expanded standards for brake override, accelerator control, push-button ignition, transmission configuration, and event data recorders.

When he testified before the House Energy & Commerce Committee on May 6 about what was then a draft bill, Michael J. Stanton, President and Chief Executive Officer, AIAM, asked members to require NHTSA to wait for SAE to finish its voluntary industry standard on keyless ignition rather than setting a firm date for NHTSA to promulgate a new push-button ignition standard. "Congress could specify that if this process is not completed in a timely fashion and in a manner acceptable to NHTSA, NHTSA would then issue a rule," he said.

The bill passed by the House and Senate committees requires NHTSA to establish a push-button standard that would allow a driver to stop a car immediately in an emergency situation. That standard must be completed within two years of the bill’s passage. Nothing in the provision mentions the SAE's work.

Besides work on a keyless ignition standard, SAE already has finished a standard on pedal placement (J1100) and is working on one for vehicle event data recorders. Work on a brake override standard may commence in the future.

A pedal-placement standard is one of the more controversial provisions in the bill. NHTSA would have 18 months from passage of the bill to determine whether a standard is necessary, based on whether it would be "reasonable, practicable, and appropriate." The standard would establish "minimum clearances for passenger motor vehicle foot pedals with respect to other pedals and the vehicle floor (including aftermarket floor coverings), taking into account various pedal mounting configurations."

Toyota, for example, has made a number of engineering fixes to the brake pedals in recalled models. But an industry spokeswoman says all the safety standards in the world won't prevent human mistakes, inadvertent though they may be. "We can't prevent a shoe from going under a pedal. We can't prevent people from putting in more than one floor mat," said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance told the Washington Post. "Prevention becomes a very steep hill to climb."

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