OUCH!: Auto Lobby Drives National Highway Safety

About two weeks after his three-year-old son, Nicholas, died after being thrown from his car seat in a Ford Explorer that rolled over three times after a tire blew out on the highway, Stephen Terraszas received a letter in the mail. It was a recall notice from Firestone. "The recall is clearly too slow," the family's lawyer told the Los Angeles Times. "It's like, who's next?"

But it's not just this one recall that's too slow. As the death toll mounts to more than 100 in accidents involving Firestone tires on Ford Explorers, and the number of injuries climbs to more than 400, the public is learning how slow the auto companies have been to respond to safety concerns, and how slow the government has been to crack down on them. Documents show that Firestone actually knew about the lethal combination of Firestone tires on Ford Explorers, the top-selling SUV in the country -- but kept this information from the National Highway and Traffic Administration (NHTSA).

Congress is finally make noises about taking action, but the question is why it takes a toll of more than 100 dead and 400 injured before it seems possible to stand up to the auto lobby and its campaign cash?

The nation's highway safety agency has a dismal record on prevention and enforcement. After decades of study, the agency has yet to publish safety rules on rollovers, which killed more than 10,100 people last year; despite thousands of deaths and injuries from fire, it has not substantively revised a safety standard for fuel tank safety in more than 25 years; it has failed to upgrade its 30-year-old standard on head restraints; and it required stronger latches on rear lift gates of minivans only after reports that 37 people died, reports the Los Angeles Times.

What's worse, the agency does not have sufficient authority and tools to compel companies to hand over unflattering safety information. Right now, manufacturers are not required to report information about defects they learn about accidents overseas. The agency is limited in the civil penalties it can impose, and there are no criminal penalties at all when a company knowingly withholds information that results in death or injuries. The agency's budget is 36 percent smaller than it was in 1980, and its rulemaking staff has shrunk from 103 people to 62, some of whom have other duties.

Much of NHTSA's poor performance is directly traceable to Congress, which has balked at toughening up NHTSA because of pressure from the auto lobby. Overall, the automotive industry has given more than $55 million to federal candidates and parties since 1990, three-fourths of it to Republicans.

Just one recent example: In June the agency proposed a new system to rate the rollover potential of SUVs. Auto lobbyists didn't like this idea, however, and stalled it by convincing the Senate Appropriations Committee to include a provision requiring a National Academy of Science study before NHTSA can act. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Transportation subcommittee, who sponsored the provision, has taken more than $74,000 in campaign contributions from the auto industry since 1995; members of the entire committee have collected nearly $950,000 over the same time period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Under tremendous pressure, Shelby finally dropped his rollover provision last week. The question remains, however, how many people have to die or be injured for the public interest to matter more than campaign contributions?

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