The Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved legislation that would require car manufacturers and tiremakers to report potential safety defects more promptly to federal regulators.
The bill, passed by voice vote after less than 10 minutes of discussion, would set criminal penalties for the first time -- up to 15 years in prison for executives who knowingly sell a vehicle that has a defect that results in death.
The quick consideration of the measure, which was introduced last week by committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., reflects the deep congressional concern about the handling of last month's recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires.
Three congressional hearings have been held -- and a fourth is scheduled for this week -- and all have been highly critical of Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford Motor Co., which sold many of the recalled tires as standard equipment on new Ford Explorers. Both firms have been taken to task for failing to take corrective action sooner on the tires, which are linked to 103 deaths and 400 injuries.
Federal regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also have come under fire for not investigating the tires sooner.
"There is some urgency that we act" before Congress adjourns in the next few weeks, McCain said. The measure approved by his committee would require the highway safety agency to write new safety standards for tires, the first revisions in more than 30 years.
It would require carmakers and their equipment suppliers, including tire companies, to report to the government warranty claims data, accident incidents and lawsuits that allege safety defects. At the same time, companies also would be required to report any recalls made abroad. Last year, Ford replaced Firestone tires in Saudi Arabia but never notified the highway safety agency; many consumer advocates and congressional members say that if it had, the government might have been prompted to investigate the tires sooner and a recall would have occurred before Aug. 9.
The House Commerce Committee plans to hold another hearing on the issue this week.
Meanwhile, congressional investigators say they have data from a second test by Bridgestone/Firestone in 1996 showing problems with the Firestone tires that were recalled only last month.
Ford acknowledged Wednesday that it did not conduct a durability test of the Firestone tires on the Explorer before the world's best-selling sport utility vehicle went into production, reversing an earlier denial of charges made by Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who is leading a House investigation into the recall.
"(Ford officials) led us to believe that somewhere along the line they tested these tires on the Explorer," said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Tauzin. "It's apparent to us now that it never happened."
The testing done by Bridgestone/Firestone four years ago showed a high failure rate for tires produced at its Decatur, Ill., plant, which now is the focus of the company's recall investigation.
The test results showed a 13.5 percent failure rate on 229 of the kind of tires now under recall, Johnson said. He said 31 failed when tested at 112 mph for 10 minutes, with 20 of the failures involving tread separation.
Tauzin alleged Tuesday that Ford never did high-speed testing of the tires on the Explorer and inflated to the automaker's recommendation of 26 pounds per square inch. Ford initially denied the allegation but then held a conference call Wednesday afternoon with reporters and acknowledged that the tests actually were done on a test vehicle rather than an Explorer.
"The wording of the affidavit certainly was curious, but was it an attempt to mislead Congress?" Johnson said. "I suspect someone will ask Ford that question at our hearing."