US senators offer bill improving automakers' fatality reports

WASHINGTON, March 25 Tue Mar 25, 2014 12:24pm EDT

WASHINGTON, March 25 (Reuters) - As General Motors comes under scrutiny by the U.S. Congress for its handling of a long-running problem with ignition switches linked to 12 deaths, two senators on Tuesday offered legislation aimed at improving the auto industry's reporting of safety problems.

Democratic Senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut introduced a bill that would require automobile manufacturers to provide more information about fatal accidents involving their vehicles and better public access to those reports.

On April 1 the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold its first hearing into GM's handling of last month's recall of 1.6 million cars because of faulty ignition switches that can shut off engines and safety equipment during operation, sometimes at high speeds.

The recalls came well over a decade after the safety problem first came to GM's attention.

A Senate Commerce panel also aims to hold a GM hearing in early April, although the date has not been finalized.

It is not yet clear whether the House and Senate investigations of GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will lead to new legislation being enacted this year.

Markey said a legislative fix was necessary after "a massive information breakdown at NHTSA has led to deadly vehicle breakdowns on our roads."

In 2000, Congress passed a law requiring an early warning reporting system for NHTSA to catch safety defects.

The two senators want to beef up that law by requiring automakers and auto equipment manufacturers to automatically submit accident reports and other documents that alert them to fatalities involving their equipment.

The information would have to be publicly released, unless they are exempted from the Freedom of Information Act.

Currently, the industry documents are provided to NHTSA if the federal agency requests them and are not automatically made public unless requested under FOIA, the senators said.

"Timely information can save lives when it reveals lethal defects," Blumenthal said.

GM CEO Mary Barra is scheduled to testify on April 1 to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman is also expected to be at the hearing.

Committee Chairman Fred Upton, asked by Reuters on Tuesday whether he also wants to question former GM executives about their knowledge of the faulty ignition switches, did not dismiss that possibility.

"We'll see where it takes us," he said of the panel's investigation and the April 1 hearing.

(Reporting By Richard Cowan; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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