New Jersey’s multitude of turnpikes, highways and streets present a host of dangers to motorists. Drunk, distracted or reckless drivers create a constant need for defensive driving and good sense. Blind intersections, perilous curves, poorly maintained road surfaces, inadequate signage and markings, bad weather — all of these conditions pose challenges to even the most diligent drivers.
But those are all factors that drivers can anticipate and understand. When faulty automobile equipment leads to a motor vehicle accident, you are betrayed by the very equipment that you trust to deliver you and your family safely on your daily rounds.
There are basically two ways by which our society regulates the safety of motor vehicles: by creating standards for safe manufacture and maintenance, and by empowering citizens to pursue legal action when they have been harmed due to an auto defect. Federal regulation of automobile safety is getting a close look this summer in legislation currently before Congress.
The Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) oversees many aspects of American automobile safety, and it has maintained an Early Warning Reporting (EWR) program to detect emerging vehicle safety issues since 2000. But as this past year’s series of Toyota auto defect reports revealed, a stronger EWR system would put necessary pressure on manufacturers to launch timely recalls when problems become apparent. More information about production irregularities, consumer claims and performance issues serves the public interest.
The House version of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010 (HR 5381), was recently approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee and may receive full attention before the end of this year. One important provision would improve the EWR system by making more data public on a quarterly basis. Other provisions involve a host of safety issues, including:
- Electronic data: Semis and other commercial vehicles have long been required to preserve data that may provide clues to the cause of a crash. The new law makes progress on requiring vehicles sold in the U.S. to be equipped with a data recorder that allows law enforcement to investigate the cause of accidents, but automakers successfully lobbied against a clear deadline for this improvement.
- Reducing drunk driving: The bill funds research for the development of on-board sensors that measure the alcohol in a driver’s system and prevent intoxicated drivers from being able to start their cars. Commercial viability of such systems may be more than a decade away, however.
- Unintended acceleration: The bill would require installation of a brake override in new vehicles that will reduce power in the event that the accelerator sticks. Other technical improvements include new standards for push-button electronic starting systems and improvements to transmission shifting systems.
- Automaker accountability: Automakers are not currently required to disclose data that they deem a confidential part of business operations. Under the 2010 law, the scope of the EWR system would be expanded in favor of maximum public availability of safety information. Maximum civil penalties would increase over tenfold from the $16.4 million Toyota was required to pay, and federal safety regulators would be granted the authority to order immediate recalls.
Former NHTSA administrators from the Bush, Clinton and Carter administrations have stated their support for the bill, arguing that “additional resources for NHTSA are crucially important because the motor vehicle safety program has been underfunded for years, and indeed is losing ground to additional requirements imposed on it and to inflation.” Henry Waxman, the Democratic chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, issued a statement that the bill “will dramatically improve the safety of motor vehicles.” He defended the compromises from the original version, claiming that “through this process we were able to earn broad support from our membership.” The bill will now go to the full House for debate. A similar bill (S 3302) is under consideration in the Senate, and further compromise of safety measures is likely.
Asserting a Claim of Negligence
Clear evidence of an automobile defect can play a vital role in motor vehicle accident litigation. Airbags that fail to deploy, vehicles that roll during the slightest evasive maneuver, and tires in seemingly good condition that suddenly rupture can all lead to unexpected tragedy. For accident victims and their families who believe that a faulty part or design flaw contributed to a catastrophic injury or highway fatality, a knowledgeable personal injury attorney can provide clear insights about all available legal options and a plaintiff’s prospects for recovery of damages.