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Auto safety overhaul stalls out

By Claes Bell ·
Saturday, January 1, 2011
Posted: 6 am ET

Lost amid the congratulatory back-slapping going on in Congress over the productive lame duck session was the failure of a key auto safety overhaul bill. The bill, known as the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010, was crafted in response to the findings of a Congressional investigation into Toyota's unintended acceleration problems earlier this year and would have beefed up the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and introduced a host of new safety standards for cars. Congress adjourned without passing the bill on Dec. 22, effectively killing it.

Ironically, the safety successes of the NHTSA in recent years may have been partially to blame, according to the Detroit News:

(The NHTSA) announced traffic deaths in 2009 fell to the lowest number since 1950. NHTSA also said they fell another 9.7 percent in the first of half of 2010, raising more questions about the need for a comprehensive safety bill.

So what would the bill have done, exactly? First and foremost, it would have given the "imminent hazard authority," giving regulators the ability to more quickly halt production and sale of vehicles deemed unsafe. Regulators would also have had heavier fines to hang over the heads of safety-flouting automakers, who could have been charged up to $300 million for serious violations.

Another bonus would have been numerous improvements to the way the NHTSA does business, including a more modern and usable database to help the agency track consumer complaints, a hotline for auto industry whistleblowers and a mandate to make early warning data on potentially dangerous cars public.

New labeling requirements for transmissions and safety standards for technologies such as pushbutton ignition were also a plus for drivers, who can sometimes be confused by radically different layouts in an unfamiliar vehicle, especially during emergency situations.

On the downside, at least in my opinion, the bill would also have required vehicle event data recorders, popularly known as black boxes, to be installed in new cars, something I wasn't crazy about because it would have added considerable cost, perhaps in the thousands of dollars, to vehicle sticker prices.

All in all, though, it seemed like a good bill that had broad-based support among both consumer advocates and at least a modicum of tolerance within the automotive industry. It's a shame drivers lost out during the mad rush to finish the lame duck session, and I hope Congress takes the bill up again next year.

What do you think? Would this bill have made drivers safer? Should Congress push forward with an auto safety overhaul in 2011?

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