Posted by: Salvatore J. Zambri, founding partner
Following the crisis created by Toyota’s issues with sudden acceleration, lawmakers proposed sweeping safety requirements in the ambitious Vehicle Safety Improvements Act of 2010 that would have allowed federal officials unlimited fine power against automakers for safety violations as well as set safety standards for vehicle electronics. However, according to a recent Los Angeles Times article, pressures from the auto industry have caused the subsequent bills proposed by both the House and Senate versions to be weakened, delayed or eliminated key safety provisions considerably.
Auto safety advocates, while not surprised by the weakening of the original bill, are disappointed. “The auto industry has had undue influence on this legislation,” said Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who testified at several congressional hearings. “The industry wanted to change a lot of little words that had a major impact.”
According to Rep. Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, “the new bill would give NHTSA significant new powers, create large fines for violation of safety rules, double the agency’s auto safety research budget and require it to create a number of new standards involving vehicle electronics.” He acknowledges that changes were made, but states, “The legislation . . . will dramatically improve the safety of motor vehicles. Through this process, we were able to earn broad support from our membership.”
Initially, the auto safety bill focused on sudden acceleration; through compromises with the auto industry other issues became more important. One change that provoked strong protests by several key safety groups was the efforts by MADD to obtain as much as $60 million over five years for research into unproven technology to prevent drunk drivers from starting their vehicles. Funding for this initiative would come out of the $140 million currently allocated to vehicle safety standards and research. According to Public Citizen President Robert Weissman, “funds for drunk driving technology ‘far outstrip’ the government’s budget for crash avoidance, occupant protection and vehicle safety research.”
The delays and setbacks in the auto safety standards would cause a more immediate loss of life, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “If the purpose of the standards is to save lives and prevent injuries, delaying the implementation is not going to achieve that goal,” Ditlow said. “The one certainty is that there will be deaths and injuries caused by the delay. What we don’t know is how many.”
The auto industry should embrace the new standards. The American people want safety to be the primary concern for all auto makers. Those that fail to put safety over profits should be subject to meaningful repercussions.
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Mr. Zambri is a board-certified civil trial attorney by the National Board of Trial Advocates and a Past-President of the Trial Lawyers Association of Metropolitan Washington, D.C. He has been rated by Washingtonian magazine as a “Big Gun” and among the “top 1%” of all lawyers in the Washington metropolitan area. The magazine also describes him as “one of Washington’s best–most honest and effective lawyers” who specializes in personal injury matters, including automobile collisions, medical malpractice, premises liability, product liability, and work-accident claims. Mr. Zambri has also been named a “Super Lawyer” by Super Lawyer magazine (March/April 2010)–a national publication that honors the top lawyers in America.
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