Chairman Rockefeller Remarks on S. 3302, The Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010

May 19, 2010

JDR Head ShotWASHINGTON, D.C.—On March 2nd, the Commerce Committee held an extraordinary all day hearing on the serious safety defects found in Toyota vehicles. During the hearing, it quickly became clear that we were also dealing with even larger safety issues that reached far beyond the individual cases of sudden acceleration that were the subject of recent Toyota recalls.

First, we learned the incredible extent to which almost every function in a car today is controlled by computers and electronics — especially safety systems. And yet, we have no minimum standards for vehicle electronics, including the electronic throttle controls that govern cars’ speed. Second, we learned that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) does not have the resources and the authority it needs to effectively enforce safety standards for all the cars on the road today. While vehicle electronics largely control today’s cars, NHTSA had only two electronics engineers to investigate the safety of hundreds of different car models. And the agency’s ability to enforce safety regulations is severely limited by the $16 million cap on civil penalties against automakers – the equivalent of a parking ticket for corporations with billion-dollar revenue streams.

We are here today for a legislative hearing. With a number of my colleagues on this Committee, I introduced the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010 to address these problems. To summarize, the bill would:

  • Dramatically raise civil penalties for auto manufacturers that violate vehicle safety standards or withhold critical safety information from NHTSA;
  • Require disclosure of more safety information to consumers, and mandate that NHTSA make its vehicle safety databases more accessible; 
  • Give auto industry employees the same whistleblower protections as airline employees;
  • Require senior auto executives to take a hands-on role in safety issues;
  • Stop the revolving door of NHTSA safety regulators leaving to work for the auto industry; 
  • Increase NHTSA’s authorization levels so it can hire the engineers and safety experts it needs to regulate today’s computerized vehicle fleet;
  • Create minimum safety standards for vehicle electronics; 
  • And require vehicles to stop within a certain distance — even if the engine is operating at full throttle.

I look forward to discussing the bill with my colleagues and hearing feedback from our witnesses: most importantly, how do they see these provisions and others in the bill working to protect consumers on the road?

It was Toyota’s recent recalls that brought intense focus to serious safety risks on the road—but this legislation is about auto safety writ large. It tackles the issues industry-wide and directly at the government agency charged with safety oversight. If we are serious about protecting the American people and the hard-working employees of companies like Toyota we cannot hide from questions of safety. We must face them head-on, honestly and directly. The American people will buy more cars and the auto industry will thrive – only when people feel confident their cars are safe. We can do better by the American people – and with this legislation we will.