Guest editorial: Missed chance on highways

USA Today
Guest Editorial

If there were Academy Awards for members of Congress, several lawmakers would surely be Oscar contenders for best dramatic performance at a congressional hearing.

As Congress investigated deadly auto defects that were hidden from the public, senators called the moment a “wake-up call” and a time for accountability. One told GM its actions were “criminal.”

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., deserves a special nomination. At a hearing last year, Upton told General Motors CEO Mary Barra he found reports of GM actions “disturbing and downright devastating,” adding that they had “fatal consequences.”

The collective outrage seemed genuine — until it came time to do something about it. The massive highway measure Upton helped write would do little to stop carmakers from doing the same thing again.

This marks a lost opportunity to make Americans safer at a time when crash fatalities appear on the rise again and a record 62 million cars were recalled last year.

The recalls followed revelations that some carmakers and suppliers have for years secretly flouted laws and regulations meant to get defective cars off the roads. GM hid ignition switches that failed to deploy air bags, killing at least 124. Takata air bags, used in millions of cars, have exploded, spewing metal shrapnel into drivers and passengers.

Last year, safety advocates and some Democratic lawmakers pushed for stricter laws, but they were beaten back in both the House and Senate. This year, the problem isn’t so much what’s in the highway measure. The problem is what’s missing.

Among the missed chances:

•The current penalties for violating safety laws are chump change for giant automakers. While Congress will triple the maximum to $105 million, that’s still not a huge deterrent for a company such as GM, which earned $2.8 billion last year. Some lawmakers sought to eliminate the cap.

• No one has faced an individual criminal charge for decisions made to hide a deadly defect for years and go on hiding it after people started dying. Individuals who make such decisions might be deterred by the prospect of going to prison. Yet a push by several senators for criminal penalties in the vehicle safety law failed to gain traction in Congress.

• Recalled cars that have not been repaired can be dangerous. Under the new measure, rental car companies will no longer be able to rent them to customers. But a huge hole still allows used-car dealers to sell cars with unfixed defects to unsuspecting buyers, such as the Houston-area driver killed this year when a Takata air bag exploded in the used Honda he purchased less than a year earlier.

The measure does move safety forward in one way, providing more funds to the federal watchdog agency that has been so starved for funding, it was difficult to keep up with auto defects.

Yet nearly a dozen hearings into concealed defects, unnecessary deaths and reprehensible actions by carmakers, lawmakers turned their backs on logical changes that could easily make a difference.