By Matthew L. Wald / New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON â€“ President Clinton has signed a bill that he says will remedy "some of the key shortcomings in identifying the recent Firestone tire problem." Although the legislation is expected to increase highway safety, auto safety experts see severe limitations in it.
The law, hurriedly passed by Congress on Wednesday after the belated discovery that more than 100 people had died in Ford Explorers that flipped over when Firestone tires failed, seeks to require car and tire companies to report to U.S. regulators when they recall products in foreign markets for safety reasons.
That, critics say, is what Ford did in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The company denies this interpretation of its action, which it called a "customer satisfaction issue," and the ambiguity still needs to be sorted out by lawmakers.
The law also requires the companies to turn over, without being asked, internal data on warranty service and legal claims, and provides money for new staff members at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to interpret that data.
But experts say the agency's historic weakness in dealing with such information is a problem. In addition, the agency is still cut off from what may be the best source of information â€“ the mechanics who actually fix cars and thus are perfectly positioned to spot defects.
Data interpretation, connecting the dots to spot patterns, is not the agency's long suit. It failed to interpret its own accident data, which could have shown the Explorer problem, because its database was not conceived as a way to spot defective products.
The agency does not, for instance, routinely track which vehicle models have been involved in which types of traffic fatalities, such as rollovers or head-on collisions. Without good analysis, said one safety expert who worked at the agency early in the Clinton administration, the new data will be "a bunch of stacks of paper."
The new law also toughens the penalties for hiding defects, but it is not clear that the actions by Ford or Firestone would have set off these provisions anyway. House investigators have not turned up any evidence that Firestone knowingly concealed the problem; they have established only that the warning signs were there and officials should have seen them.
The agency's current administrator, Dr. Sue Bailey, called the new law "the biggest vehicle safety act since the 1970s." The law, however, relies mostly on answers from manufacturers to questions put by the agency, which are gleaned from consumer complaints and, in cases like the Ford-Firestone crisis, news reports.
Dr. Bailey acknowledged that the law does not increase the agency's ability to talk to mechanics, who could be a valuable source concerning safety problems.
"The key to the agency having a proactive program is to work with the guys who get their hands in the cars," said Joan Claybrook, who headed the highway safety agency in the Carter administration. That has always been a problem, even during Ms. Claybrook's tenure.