House Approves Auto Safety Bill

Wednesday, October 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Spurred by problems with Firestone tires, the House passed a bill requiring vehicle rollover testing and installation of systems to warn of under-inflated tires. It would allow stiff prison sentences for auto executives who hide safety problems.

But with strong opposition from the industry and only a few days of this session of Congress remaining, the bill's fate is uncertain in the Senate. The bill's supporters, however, said it was time to act.

``We have lost more than 100 lives (in the United States) because of these tires,'' Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the bill's sponsor, said as the measure passed on a voice vote early Wednesday. ``We have seen hundreds and hundreds of accidents, many serious injuries. And what this bill does is correct those problems.''

John Lampe, who took over Tuesday as chief executive of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., said Wednesday he does not consider the bill an overreaction to his company's tire problems.

``I know there are many provisions of it that we support fully — updating the testing standards, reporting requirements. We support those every much,'' he said on ABC's ``Good Morning America.''

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has introduced legislation aimed at getting auto industry companies to provide more information about safety problems to the government. But some of his colleagues have blocked a vote and he is working with Upton on a compromise.

``I got the sense that this bill has a real chance of passing the Senate,'' said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., co-sponsor of the bill and leader of a House investigation into the Firestone tire case. ``It would be an awful shame if we left this session without putting this bill for signature on the president's desk.''

Under McCain's bill, auto industry officials who knowingly sell defective products that kill or injure people could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

Upton's bill also would create a 15-year sentence, but only for officials who withhold information on defective products from government investigators. It also included a ``safe harbor'' provision that would allow whistle-blowers to report the defects within ``a reasonable amount of time'' without being punished.

McCain thought that provision needed strengthening, so the final House version included new language that specifies that the whistle-blower would have to be someone who did not know that the violation would cause death or serious injury.

Both bills would increase civil penalties for safety violations from $925,000 to $15 million.

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. in August recalled 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires used primarily on Ford Motor Co. light trucks and sport utility vehicles, including Ford's best-selling Explorer. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating Firestone tires in connection with 101 U.S. traffic deaths and more than 400 injuries.

Ford received harsh criticism after the Firestone recall because it acknowledged ordering its own recall of the same tires in 16 other countries after receiving reports of problems. The foreign recalls began more than a year before the U.S. recall, but Ford never alerted NHTSA.

Ford was not required by law to report the foreign recalls. Companies would have to tell NHTSA about such actions overseas under the McCain and Upton bills.

Bridgestone/Firestone has been criticized for not ordering a recall sooner, even though the company's data on claims for injuries and property damage indicated problems with the tires at least as early as 1997.

The Upton and McCain bills include provisions requiring automakers and their suppliers to give NHTSA more information about accidents, warranties and claims so it can identify problems earlier.

Upton's bill also would require that all vehicles have warning indicators for low tire pressure. And it includes a provision requiring NHTSA to develop driving tests to determine vehicle rollover risk instead of the simple mathematical formula the agency plans to use. Critics say the formula is not as accurate as a road test.

Most of the Firestone tire deaths occurred when the tires came apart while on Ford Explorers, causing the vehicles to roll over.


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