— Three U.S. senators have introduced a bill that could overhaul the way auto safety is handled in the country, including the possibility of sending auto execs to prison for hiding safety defects.
Titled the "Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2015," the proposed legislation comes on the heels of massive recalls caused by deadly ignition switches and exploding airbags.
Sponsored by Sens. Bill Nelson, Richard Blumenthal and Ed Markey, the legislation would give new powers to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Additionally, certain sections of the proposed legislation would allegedly hold corporate officers responsible for failures in their job duties, but whether that would "actually" happen is debatable.
One section that sounds good on paper but will likely never be enforced is Section 202 of the proposed Act, which "makes it a crime, punishable by fines and up to five years in prison, for a corporate officer to knowingly conceal the fact that a corporate action or product poses a danger of death or serious physical injury."
Furthermore, "federal agencies must be verbally informed within 24 hours of the entity or person acquiring actual knowledge of a serious danger, and they must be further informed by writing within 15 days."
The wording about criminal penalties is similar to the wording used in a bill introduced in July 2014, called the "Hide No Harm Act." Both bills use the phrase "actual knowledge of a serious danger," which could be nearly impossible to prove in court, not to mention what problems could be deemed a "serious danger."
Additionally, before anyone believes a corporate officer at an automaker would be jailed, keep in mind the millions of dollars spent by automakers in political campaign contributions and lobbying efforts.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, automakers spent $43.5 million in lobbying efforts in 2013, with the biggest spender The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
In 2014, General Motors took the top lobbying spot by spending $8.5 million on lobbying efforts, while The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers was second with almost $6.7 doled out.
The $8.5 million spent by GM was during the same time its ignition switches were killing people and had been for 10 years, not to mention the $11.5 billion it left taxpayers holding after the government bailed out the automaker with a $49.5 billion loan.
However, maybe all is not lost. Other sections of the proposed Act seem logical and would likely be a benefit to American drivers.
Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2015
Section 102: Early warning reporting requirements
Federal law requires manufacturers to submit early warning reports to NHTSA every three months to help the government track actual or potential safety problems with vehicles. The proposed legislation would require NHTSA to make those documents public unless they are exempted from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act or subject to attorney-client privilege.
Section 201: Civil penalties
Section 201 removes the cap on NHTSA’s civil penalty authority, which is currently at $35 million.
Section 204: Imminent hazard authority
Section 204 provides NHTSA with the authority to expedite a recall order in the case of a substantial likelihood of death or serious injury to the public.
Section 205: Used car protection
Section 205 prohibits the sale or lease of a used vehicle that has an unrepaired safety defect or does not comply with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard. However, the prohibition does not apply to circumstances where recall information is not available or accessible at the time the vehicle is sold or leased.
Section 401: Recall obligations under bankruptcy
Section 401 preserves all recall obligations for manufacturers that are subject to Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.
Section 403: Application of remedies for defects and noncompliance
Section 403 removes the 10-year limitation on the obligation of auto and parts manufacturers to replace or fix defects at no charge to consumers.
Section 404: Direct notification of recalls
Section 404 directs NHTSA to put into effect specific rules that would require new vehicles to feature a warning feature–similar to tire pressure monitor light on the dashboard–that would notify consumers their cars are subject to a safety recall.
The full text of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2015 is not yet available. Learn more at Congress.gov.