The nation’s auto safety and highway infrastructure is increasingly demanding the attention of Congress and the White House. This trend continued over the past month. At the end of January, Senators Thune and Nelson reintroduced the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act into the U.S. Senate. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx also commented to reporters in early February on both the budget proposal seeking increased funding for the NHTSA and the potential for the White House to unveil new auto safety reforms when it revamps the long-term highway funding bill. Foxx also pushed for the bill to boost infrastructure funding at the House Transportation Committee yesterday.
The upcoming legislation for auto safety previewed by Foxx would have many of the Obama administration’s previously proposed reforms, including an increase to $300 million in the maximum fine for an automaker that unnecessarily delays the recall of a vehicle and the power to get vehicles deemed an “imminent hazard” off the road faster.
If the auto safety reforms can latch on to the highway funding bill, they may move faster than might otherwise be expected. The Highway Trust Fund, which pays for infrastructure projects, will run out of money on May 31st and will be hotly debated over the next few months. The Obama administration’s initial proposal in this area was a six year, $478 billion plan to improve the nation’s infrastructure. Among the ideas for funding the bill has been a tax on overseas corporate revenue and an increase on the federal gas tax.
The record number of auto recalls last year and the continuing investigation into Takata has maintained momentum for action in this area. The White House’s budget proposal in early February called for the defect investigation budget at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to more than triple from its current $9.7 million budget to $31.3 million. The increased funding would allow the agency to create a trend analysis division as well as a separate, specialized crash investigation group.
The defects team currently has 8 screeners and 16 defects to analyze 75,000 complaints a year. The proposal would allow the defect team to double its personnel by adding a mathematician, two statisticians, four investigators and 16 engineers. Amid the growing complexity of automotive technology and more data in accident reports, manufacturers’ data, medical records and even social media, the Transportation Department needs the additional funds in order to be able to identify safety defects quicker, ensure remedies are put in place and the public informed about the problems.
The crash investigations group would be similar to the National Transportation Safety Board team investigating high-profile accidents. The NHTSA already has a crash investigation group as part of its statistics and analysis unit. However, this group would target accidents which may involve a defect that the NHTSA is investigating and collect the data the NHTSA needs.
Overall, the six-year budget proposal calls for an increase in the funding of the NHTSA’s vehicle and research program from $269 million to $414 million in 2021.
I have yet to see the public discussion include much talk about the possibility of whistleblower incentives. However, Senators Thune and Nelson did reintroduce their auto whistleblower legislation into the Senate on January 29, 2015. The Thune-Nelson bill is now S.304 in the 114th Congress.
Senator Thune spoke when re-introducing the bill. Thune called it a commonsense, bipartisan bill that will help to prevent injuries and deaths for American drivers. It is absolutely clear that vehicle safety defects need to be identified as early as possible to protect consumers from death and injury, according to Thune. He also cited reports of employees concerns being ignored, silenced or covered up as evidence that the bill was necessary to encourage them to come forward sooner.
Following Thune’s remarks, Senator Nelson provided an update on the investigation into the defective Takata airbags. Takata identified to the committee a total of 5 deaths and 64 injuries due to ruptured airbags. Nelson added that there was another death due to a defective airbag in Texas in January and expressed his desire to get to the bottom of the situation.
Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) were added as cosponsors of the legislation. Senator Moran is the Chair of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security and Richard Blumenthal is the Ranking Minority Member of the Subcommittee. They join Senators Heller, McCaskill, Klobuchar and Ayotte.
The legislation has been referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. We will keep you updated as it moves through Congress.
Spring 2016 Update:
The Thune-Nelson proposal was signed into law by President Obama as part of the FAST Act in December 2015. For additional information, please visit our page dedicated to auto whistleblowers.