The sweeping legislation that grew out of Toyota Motor Corp.'s sudden-acceleration crisis — heralded as the most important auto safety bill in a decade — has been scaled back significantly in the face of auto industry opposition.
The bill originally gave federal officials the power to levy unlimited fines against automakers for safety violations, which regulators said could have resulted in multibillion-dollar penalties. But the House version now caps fines at $200 million.
In addition, a provision to set first-ever safety standards for vehicle electronics was watered down so that the secretary of Transportation would only have to "consider" them, with the discretion to abandon them altogether. The timetable for automakers to meet any future standard was eliminated.
These and other key revisions to the bill have disappointed, but not entirely surprised, auto safety advocates.
They point out that the auto industry — which has spent about $50 million a year on lobbying over the last decade — has a long track record of weakening federal legislation targeted at vehicle safety. More than a dozen members of the House committee where the bill originated come from auto-producing states in the Midwest and South, including Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the panel's chairman emeritus.
"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."
Claybrook said she was especially disheartened to see $60 million once designated for improving electronic systems shifted to a drunk driving research program supported by the auto industry and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Robert Strassburger, a vice president at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, praised the legislation, but said some of the original deadlines were too difficult to meet.
He cited a requirement that would have obligated carmakers to install event data recorders, also known as black boxes, within five years and adhere to certain operating standards. The bill no longer sets a deadline.
Behind the scenes, the alliance worked to weaken, delay or eliminate provisions of the bill, according to a memo it wrote to the Senate Commerce Committee, and which was obtained by The Times. Richard Lopez, the alliance's director of government affairs and the memo's author, declined to discuss the memo.
The bills, HR 5381 in the House and S 3302 in the Senate, grew out of congressional hearings last winter that investigated sudden acceleration and other safety problems involving Toyota and Lexus vehicles since 2001.
The investigations also raised concerns that NHTSA has lagged behind badly in expertise and oversight of the auto industry's rapid adoption of electronic systems that control vehicles.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, introduced the 30-page bill, which would give NHTSA significant new powers, create large fines for violations of safety rules, double the agency's auto safety research budget and require it to create a number of new standards involving vehicle electronics.
Waxman acknowledged that changes were made but said the result was a balanced bill that set realistic goals. The legislation passed committees in the House and Senate last month.
"The legislation … will dramatically improve the safety of motor vehicles," Waxman said in a statement. "Through this process we were able to earn broad support from our membership."
Although the bill no longer provides for unlimited fines against automakers who violate safety laws, the $200-million cap in the House version is substantially larger than the current $16.4-million maximum, which Toyota paid this spring for failing to promptly order a recall of sticking gas pedals. The Senate version has a cap of $300 million.
Toyota's liability would have been $13.8 billion had it not been for the existing cap, federal regulators said at the time.
The bill also includes new standards for push-button electronic starting systems, easier-to-understand transmission shifting systems and a brake override that would power down a vehicle if a gas pedal becomes stuck.
Safety advocates called for the brake override after an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and his family were killed in a Lexus that sped out of control and crashed into an embankment near San Diego on Aug. 28, 2009.
That incident — which Toyota blamed on a gas pedal trapped by a floor mat — led to a series of recalls to correct sudden-acceleration problems in Toyota and Lexus vehicles, ultimately leading to the automaker's decision to temporarily suspend sales of eight models in January.
Although the legislation initially focused on sudden acceleration, it has also become a vehicle for other agendas.
For example, MADD has successfully pushed to get as much as $60 million over five years for research into technologies to prevent drunk drivers from starting their cars. The money would come out of funding that was originally aimed at doubling the roughly $140 million a year that is now allocated to vehicle safety standards and research.
The technology, as yet unproven, would use cabin sensors to measure the level of alcohol in a driver's breath and in his or her fingertips on the steering wheel, without requiring them to blow into a tube.
The amendments for the funding, offered by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), evoked strong protests by several key auto safety groups in Washington.
Public Citizen President Robert Weissman said in a letter to congressional leaders that funds for drunk driving technology "far outstrip" the government's budget for crash avoidance, occupant protection and vehicle safety research.
Chuck Hurley, who recently stepped down as MADD president, said he "makes no apologies" for advocating for the amendments.
"If there is a technology that could potentially eliminate drunk driving and save 8,000 to 9,000 lives a year, why wouldn't we want to fund it?" Hurley asked.
Hurley added that MADD's political influence could be crucial in getting the entire legislation passed by the Senate, which is considered far from assured.
Auto safety groups say the technology is speculative and they dispute claims that it could save 8,000 to 9,000 lives each year. It could take up to 25 years before the entire U.S. auto fleet could have the technology, Strassburger of the auto manufacturers alliance acknowledged.
Meanwhile, 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."