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New pact between DOT, automakers: conducive to safety or not?

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx voiced his ardent approval recently of a new agreement reached between his agency and a broad consortium of automobile manufacturers. He called it "a strong stand in favor a new approach ... that leans heavily on being proactive and less heavily on being reactive."

If Foxx expected unanimous plaudits for the pact, which embraces a government/car maker relationship based more on the latter group's voluntary consent to work with the government on safety issues rather than on regulatory enforcement to ensure cooperation, he was certainly disappointed.

Because what he got instead, from a diverse band of critics, was strong condemnation of the pact. Joan Claybrook, former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head, called the agreement "toothless," underscoring its weakness in promoting automotive safety solely by relying on car makers' volitional behavior.

U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) was even more pejorative, pointing to a direct causal link between what he termed "a culture of informality" between regulators and manufacturers and the deaths of many Americans from ongoing automobile defects.

A story discussing the DOT/auto industry safety pact quotes Markey at some length in its enumeration of many safety problems that have prominently surfaced in recent years. Many of our readers in San Diego and across Southern California will undoubtedly recall with immediacy and sadness the tragedies resulting from exploding air bags, faulty ignition switches, passenger vehicles summarily bursting into flames, sudden acceleration and additional glitches.

What materially upsets many critics of the new pact is the fact that it follows closely upon a recently approved law enabling federal safety officials to triple the fines that could previously be levied upon car makers for safety lapses.

Some commentators wonder why regulators have opted for a new conciliatory and voluntary relationship with manufacturers in lieu of simply exercising their new enforcement powers aggressively in order to force necessary safety changes upon recalcitrant actors in the auto industry.

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