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Feds May Seek More Authority on Vehicle Safety

March 16, 2010
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U.S. vehicle-safety regulators may seek greater authority to investigate defects in cars and trucks, and are weighing a range of new safety requirements in response to Toyota’s recall of more than eight million vehicles over brake and acceleration problems.

David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said his agency will take a “hard look” at the power it has to set safety standards for automakers. Current authority, acquired in the 1960s and 1970s, may not be enough to oversee the technology used in modern vehicles, he said.

But one lawmaker at a House hearing said the agency’s problems seem to have more to do with “ineptitude” and lack of money than with insufficient powers. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said the agency’s response to the Toyota recalls had been sluggish after “years of stagnation in funding.”

Strickland told the panel it was unclear whether the agency can regulate “in a way that allows the auto industry to build and sell safe products that the consumer wants to drive.” The government may also require automakers to include brake-override systems, a fix intended to prevent the type of runaway car incidents that some Toyota drivers have described. It would ensure a driver stepping on the brakes can slow the vehicle even if the gas pedal is stuck or malfunctioning.

Strickland said the agency will consider mandating event data recorders, or vehicle “black boxes,” which typically record data about whether the brake or accelerator pedals were depressed at the time of a crash. About 60% of vehicles already have the technology. He also vowed to look closely at push-button start and stop technologies to ensure drivers can easily turn their cars off during an emergency.

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