Senate Bill Clears Path to Higher Fines, More Funds

WASHINGTON (Detroit Free Press/TNS) -

As expected, a six-year road-and-bridge funding program under consideration in the U.S. Senate doubles the cap on civil penalties against automakers to $70 million and provides added funding for vehicle safety as long as federal regulators take certain steps.

But unlike the bill as originally voted on last week in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, the U.S. Department of Transportation won’t be required to get its inspector general to sign off on regulatory improvements first.

The legislation — a 1,080-page document that could end an impasse on a new transportation authorization — provides that vehicle safety efforts by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will receive funding increases sought by the Obama administration as long as its transportation secretary certifies that improvements outlined by the inspector general are made.

At a recent hearing before the committee, NHTSA was chastised for not reacting more swiftly to safety defects that have resulted in millions of recalls. In his audit of the agency, Inspector General Calvin Scovel said the agency’s internal operations were deeply flawed, providing too little guidance to automakers, and were too slow to react to defect data.

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind has said that changes are already underway and that more are coming in response to Scovel’s report as well as internal reviews of agency practices. By taking the inspector general out of the process to authorize funding, however, it makes it more likely that the increased amount will be authorized — though it would still have to be appropriated by Congress.

Meanwhile, the revised bill, which could be headed to the Senate floor in the days to come, also provides for the civil cap on automakers to be increased from $35 million to $70 million provided that the transportation secretary outlines a series of penalty “factors” ordered in previous legislation.

The bill covers several other vehicle and highway safety measures as well, including rules for rental-car companies to have defects addressed before renting or selling vehicles, but some Democrats have been critical of the legislation, saying it does too little. On the floor, they are expected to press for changes, potentially including larger fines and rules for used-car dealers to address safety defects before selling vehicles.