WASHINGTON - Two Democratic senators have introduced a proposal to overhaul the nation's motor vehicle safety laws that would hike the maximum fine for failing to recall an unsafe vehicle to at least $250 million.

Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., introduced Monday the proposed reform of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, whose legislative authority expires on Sept. 30, reported The Detroit News.

"The number of deaths that occur on our roads is obscene," said Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce Committeem, adding that the bill would give NHTSA "the essential and difficult mission of reducing this number and making our roads safer. This legislation will strengthen NHTSA and focus attention and resources on the most pressing safety problems."

The bill would increase the maximum fines from the current $16.4 million — the fines are adjusted for inflation annually — but wouldn't take effect until at least one year after passage.

Efforts to overhaul safety regulations failed last year after two bills were approved by congressional committees in the wake of Toyota Motor Corp.'s sudden acceleration recalls. Those bills also sought to boost the fines to $250 million.

Last year, Toyota was fined nearly $50 million for three separate recall incidents.

The bill would eventually bar automakers from installing television screens within eyesight of drivers and would require them to remind rear-seat passengers to use seatbelts.

It also would require automakers to install "brake override" systems that would allow drivers to halt speeding cars - even if the throttle is open. NHTSA would set standards for the placement of pedals to ensure that they are located to prevent them from getting stuck and standards for push-button ignition systems.

Other reforms in the legislation include:

  • Requiring all automobiles to have event data recorders by 2015 and to study in-vehicle alcohol detection systems.
  • Having NHTSA take into account whether an automaker had been previously fined in the last five years in setting penalties and the size of a penalty "in relation to the size of the business."
  • Mandating a senior official at each automaker to certify the accuracy of its recall reports and requiring fines of $5,000 a day for submitting "false, misleading, or incomplete information" — up to $5 million.
  • Forcing automakers to more visibly notify owners of how to contact NHTSA with a complaint in the glove compartment or other accessible spot.
  • Adding protections for whisteblowers and barring automakers from employing former NHTSA officials for two years after they left the agency.
  • Giving NHTSA the power to consider other ways for automakers to notify owners of recalls — even emails or text messages — rather than by first-class letters. Automakers noted that traffic deaths and fatalities are at their lowest levels in 60 years. Despite Americans driving nearly 21 billion more miles than in 2009, U.S. highway traffic fatalities dropped another 3 percent in 2010 to the lowest levels in recorded history.

Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the group will work with Congress.

"We're supportive of working with others to further enhance safety - we agree with others that having he maximum impact on the most drivers and passengers is the key to continued success in all area of traffic safety," Newton said.

NHTSA Administrator David Strickland told Congress last week the administration was supportive of provisions, including increasing civil penalties.

He said NHTSA would like "direct appellate review of recall orders to ensure that manufacturers have the opportunity to challenge orders while avoiding lengthy district court trials during which no recall is in effect to protect consumers."

That provision is not in the bill.

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