The price tag ($300 billion) may be getting all the attention, but for those of us who represent people who have been hurt or killed on our nation’s highways, there are some golden nuggets in the new transportation bill passed overwhelmingly by Congress yesterday and on its way to President Obama for his signature.
Let’s start with (almost) closing a big loophole in our auto safety laws. Rental car companies have always been allowed by law to rent cars subject to safety recalls without fixing them first. Thanks, in part, to the efforts of Cally Houck, whose daughters Raechel and Jacqueline were killed in a defective recalled Enterprise rental car, the new bill bans “rental car companies from keeping cars in operation that are subject to recall until the necessary fixes are made”. Unfortunately, car dealers with fewer than 35 cars for renting or loaning to customers are exempt from the ban.
Next, the bill raises the maximum civil penalty that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can levy against an automaker that fails to report a safety defect within five days. The bill would triple the maximum cap to $105 million from $35 million. It is short of what the Department of Transportation wanted but still an improvement in this world of exploding airbags and defective ignition swit
Also, the bill includes a financial incentive for whistle-blowers in the automobile industry to report safety concerns directly to federal regulators. If a whistle-blower comes forward with information that leads to monetary sanctions on an automaker exceeding $1 million, the Transportation Secretary would in some cases be allowed to award that whistle-blower as much as 30 percent of the penalties.
This provision covers employees or contractors of auto manufacturers, parts suppliers and dealerships, and would take into account the significance of the information.
Finally, as part of this legislation, Congress increased Amtrak’s liability cap from $200 million to $295 million with an inflationary adjustment every five years. The increase was made retroactive to cover compensation to victims of May’s Amtrak derailment and crash in Philadelphia.