Two U.S. Senators, Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Henry Waxman (D-CA), have drafted proposed changes to auto safety legislation in the wake of the Toyota unintended acceleration debacle. While increased auto safety is something that everyone favors, some of the proposed changes are likely to do more harm that good. Let’s look at a few below:
1. NHTSA must come up with rules for space between the brake and accelerator pedals, gear shift designs and stop-start systems.
Do I need to tell you why this is a bad idea? Essentially, vehicle design and construction of all cars, sports cars included, will be done to satisfy the lowest common denominator driver. Not that it really matters anyway, since even Lamborghini appears to be abandoning manual transmission vehicles in favor of paddle shifted automatics. Wouldn’t better driver training and more frequent re-testing of older drivers be a better long term solution?
2. Automakers will be required to build vehicles with event data recorders.
On the surface, this is a good thing. Who doesn’t agree that better crash test data will ultimately result in safer cars. Still, there’s an ominous undercurrent here – how long will it be before insurance companies deny claims based on EDR data? Will police be able to prosecute based on EDR data? Be careful what you wish for, because you may not get what you expect.
3. All automaker penalty fine caps would be removed, and the per-vehicle fine would be raised from $6,000 to $25,000. NHTSA could also fine automakers $50,000 per day up to $250 million for withholding information.
Under the changes proposed, Toyota would have been fined over $50 billion. No automaker, Toyota included, could survive such a penalty, so ask yourself this: when the cost of doing business inside a country is no longer offset by the sales benefit, what are your options? Withdraw from the market, most likely. Would the U.S. really be a better place if Toyota, warts and all, were gone? How many Americans would lose their jobs if Toyota pulled out. Not just autoworkers, but everyone that ultimately supports them and their families. Car dealers, mechanics, parts distributors, teachers, dry cleaners, grocery stores, etc. Get the picture?
4. The U.S. Department of Transportation would fund the NHTSA by collecting a $3 fee per vehicle sold, increasing to $9 per year in the third year.
Sounds good to me – if the NHTSA can become a more pro-active agency with funding from the automakers, so be it. I’d be willing to absorb the additional per vehicle cost (probably $100 or so) when buying a new car.
5. Waxman’s version of the bill would require a U.S. auto executive to certify the accuracy of information submitted to the NHTSA in response to government investigations. Executives who provide false information could face up to $250 million in fines.
This is a bad, bad idea. If you work in corporate America, you’re familiar with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, put in place in 2002 in the wake of accounting scandals from companies like Enron. I won’t go into boring detail here (that’s what Wikipedia is for), but one of the primary functions of SOX was to get corporate executives to take responsibility for their actions, under penalty of law. Did it work? In my experience, no. Instead, senior management now ponders decisions until they’re too late to be effective. Alternatively, responsibility (and blame) is shuffled down to middle management. Put an executive in the crosshairs, and he’ll find a way to throw up a bulletproof shield. When an innocent bystander gets hit by a deflected bullet, it’s not his problem.
There are other ways of making our roads safer, but no one in Washington wants to talk about them. After all, it’s not progress that counts, it’s the illusion of progress.