WASHINGTON (AP) â€” Responding to the fury over the Firestone tire recall, President Clinton on Wednesday signed a bill that requires automakers and suppliers to quickly notify the government about potential safety defects. A citizens' group complained the bill is like a shiny new car with problems hidden under the hood.
``The act responds directly to some of the key shortcomings in identifying the recent Firestone tire problem,'' Clinton said, referring to the tires that lose their tread and have been linked to more than 100 deaths.
While Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. has recalled 6.5 million tires because of concerns about tire separation, congressional hearings have disclosed that the issue did not come to light for some time after the manufacturer had indication of a problem.
``Some of the deaths and injuries associated with these tires might have been prevented if automobile manufacturers and their suppliers had been required to provide the government with more timely information,'' said the president.
The bill, The Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act, was introduced Sept. 13 and passed Congress in less than a month.
``The signing of this bill today just goes to show what can be accomplished when the American people demand it,'' said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., author of the legislation.
Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., whose committee held hearings on the Firestone recall, called the bill the most important auto safety legislation in 30 years. ``There is no doubt in my mind that it will save lives and prevent future tragedies,'' he said.
But the advocacy group, Public Citizen, said the law is flawed, because it doesn't go far enough in enforcing criminal penalties and repeals a requirement that auto manufacturers evaluate data on their vehicles to determine whether they contain safety defects.
``The bottom line is that if you walk around this law and kick its tires, you'll find that it has flashy fenders and shiny paint, but is plagued with engine troubles,'' said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen.
Under the bill, automotive industry officials could face up to 15 years in prison for hiding information on defects that lead to deaths or serious injuries. Maximum fines for companies will increase from $925,000 to $15 million.
The criminal penalties take effect immediately, but other aspects of the legislation are phased in. Within two years, government agencies must begin rollover testing of vehicles, something the auto industry fought for years, and upgrade 30-year-old test standards for tires. Within three years, all new vehicles will have indicators to warn of under-inflated tires.
The bill also
â€”Requires automakers to report any relevant safety recalls or other safety campaigns in foreign countries to the secretary of transportation within five days.
â€”Gives the secretary new authority to develop an early warning system that requires automakers and their suppliers to submit information and analysis concerning possible safety defects in vehicles and equipment.
â€”Overhauls government investigations of safety defects, strengthening testing requirements for tires and vehicles.
Most of the fatal Firestone accidents involved rollovers of the Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle, on which the tires have been standard equipment.
Tests have shown that because of their higher centers of gravity, the Explorer and other SUVs roll over more often than sedans, which the auto industry worries will be highlighted by the rollover tests and could cut into sales.
On the Net:
The White House: http://www.whitehouse.gov
Ford Motor Co.: http://www.ford.com
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.gov