Senators push for better auto safety reporting

03/25/2014 5:30 PM

03/25/2014 9:38 PM

Two senators introduced legislation on Tuesday intended to help highway safety experts, both in the government and outside it, “connect the dots” in cases such as the Chevy Cobalt, where a safety defect went undetected for years and caused at least 12 deaths before a recall was issued.

Democratic Sens. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut introduced legislation that would make the auto companies give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration copies of insurance claims made against them and copies of lawsuits about fatal crashes in which they were defendants. They also would have to provide copies of internal safety studies related to the car model involved. Markey, when he was a congressman, wrote similar legislation in 2010, which passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee but was not enacted.

The measures are intended to broaden a database the safety agency already maintains, called the Early Warning Reporting System, which tracks injuries and deaths reported to the government by the automakers in cases in which a defect is alleged. That information would then be linked more closely to a second database, called the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which tracks police reports of fatal crashes.

The safety agency would have to make its databases easier to use and more widely available to outside groups. Outside experts complain that the traffic safety agency’s databases are hard to navigate and do not readily allow searching for trends. In the Cobalt case, government analysts never found the link before General Motors issued its recall.

“A massive information breakdown at NHTSA has led to deadly vehicle breakdowns on our roads,” Markey said in a statement. The Transportation Department has the authority to require the additional information to be made public but has never done so, he said.

Information would not be released if it was covered by the privacy provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.

The legislation would require the safety agency to integrate its databases so they could be searched all at once, and searched by keyword, which is the common way that commercial databases are searched. And it would require the agency to give public notices, also searchable, of all inspection and investigation activities it undertook.

Legislation seems possible this year. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has demanded extensive documents from General Motors and the traffic safety agency and set a deadline of Tuesday. It plans an initial hearing next week. Uncharacteristically for that committee, the investigation is bipartisan.

The committee chairman, Michigan Republican Fred Upton, was an author of a bill in 2000 that also sought to improve the government’s ability to spot accident trends early, after the emergence of the problem of Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone tires. The defective tires and slightly top-heavy Explorer were a combination that killed people. But the effectiveness of the 2000 law has been called into question by the Cobalt problem and, before that, the unintended acceleration issue with Toyotas.

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