Congress Locks the Barn Door Following the Toyota Recall Crisis

Last Updated May 20, 2010 6:25 AM EDT

As day follows night, it was inevitable that the Toyota recall and unintended acceleration fiasco would generate additional regulation for all automakers, not just Toyota (TM).

"It was Toyota's recent recalls that brought intense focus to serious safety risks on the road -- but this legislation is about auto safety writ large," said Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The committee held hearings yesterday on the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010. The law is aimed squarely at preventing a repeat of the Toyota disaster, even though it applies to anybody selling cars in the United States.

Key provisions include mandating "brake override" hardware so the brakes can always stop the car even if the engine is somehow out of control; improved onboard "black boxes" to monitor system performance and crash data; plus a requirement for high-ranking auto executives to personally sign off on meeting all safety requirements.

There was a similar congressional reaction after the Ford Explorer-Firestone Tire controversy a few years ago. The resulting legislation, called the TREAD Act, for Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation, mandated tire-pressure monitoring systems and other improvements to reduce the chances of improperly inflated tires and rollover accidents similar to those suffered by some Ford Explorers.

The TREAD Act also introduced tougher obligations for car companies to promptly disclose consumer complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It's central to the Toyota case that Toyota supposedly sat on unintended acceleration complaints for a while, so it seems like the problem-disclosing system is likely to get another shot in the arm.

Judging by their prepared remarks, auto industry spokesmen prudently avoided a confrontation in today's public hearing.

Michael Stanton, president and CEO of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers said his group supports most provisions of the new act, but has some issues with the details. It's no small matter, for instance, whether the car companies can phase in new hardware requirements as they introduce new models, or if they have to retrofit existing models with equipment that the existing models weren't designed to accommodate.

"AIAM and its member companies appreciate the Committee's efforts to improve motor vehicle safety and understand the intended benefits of the bill," Stanton said.