Senate panel reviews US auto safety regulations image

Late last week, a Senate panel heard testimony whether the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is moving fast enough to impose new regulations on the auto industry.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Judiciary panel that held the hearing, said, “important NHTSA rules have been delayed even when Congress has expressly demanded them.”

One central argument is that NHTSA — created by Congress in 1966 — had issued 50 different safety standards by 1976 — and that framework largely exists today with some changes. Critics say after automakers fought some of the rules, few new safety standards were issued. Many safety regulations in recent years have been significantly delayed.

Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Automotive Safety, said NHTSA hasn’t introduced rules on electronic controls or moved fast enough on other issues like rear visibility standards.

He argued that NHTSA should upgrade its tire safety rules: “Congress is dictating to NHTSA to issue rules in the face of inaction,” Ditlow said. “Out-of-date and inadequate safety standards couple with enforcement efforts playing catch-up to an industry striving to run out of the statute of limitations.”

Thomas McGarity, a University of Texas law school professor, said NHTSA “has effectively given up on rule making unless specifically required by statute, focusing instead on its statutory power to force the recall of motor vehicles that contain ‘defects’ related to safety performance,” he told the panel. As a result, through recalls, it creates policy gradually.

On the other hand, Cary Coglianese, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, disagreed with suggestions that rules aren’t being written. NHTSA needs to make sure its regulations “do no harm.”