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New Government Safety Standards Will Cost Carmakers and Car Buyers

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author photo by Autotrader May 2010

In the past week both the House and the Senate have made moves to overhaul the safety standards for new vehicles sold in the US.

Toyota's unintended acceleration crisis has drawn legislator's attention to some of the inadequacies of current safety standards that are not necessarily appropriate for modern cars with devices such as electronic throttle controls.

"Recent Toyota recalls showed an urgent need to update safety standards to reflect modern vehicle technology and give auto safety regulators the stronger tools and resources they need to protect the public," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, during a hearing on Tuesday.

Although some people might object to more government regulation, it's tough not to agree that safety standards enacted during the past four decades have lead to safer vehicles and saved countless thousands of lives.

Plans include the introduction of a brake override system that would reduce engine power if the brake and gas pedals were depressed at the same time, a standard for turning off an engine with a keyless ignition, and a standard way for people to put a transmission into neutral. Additional ideas include setting a standard for the space between the brake and gas pedal as well as the distance of the pedals from the floor in order to reduce the risk of driver's putting their foot on the wrong pedal. Legislators are also pushing for black boxes to collect crash data for use in analyzing the cause of accidents.

Lawmakers also want the NHTSA to have more authority to force recalls in a more timely manner if a vehicle's problem is considered dangerous.

One of the most controversial proposals is to add a fee to every vehicle sold in the US to cover the increased costs to run the NHTSA, which has had its budget cut in recent years.

Inevitably there are some grumblings from manufacturers who say it will be difficult to engineer changes in a short period of time. On the whole there is a general consensus that safety regulations are a good idea and current standards do need to be updated.

Most European cars already have brake override systems while GM and Toyota have announced they will include this safety system in all cars with electronic throttle controls within a couple of years. Ironically, most manufacturers may well have adopted this before government regulations require it.

It's worth noting that 40 years ago, cars designed to meet American safety standards were undoubtedly the safest on the road. In recent years, though, European safety standards have caught up and even surpassed some American standards. The Economic Commission for Europe, which oversees safety standards, has allowed non-European countries to join and many have, including Japan and Korea. As a result, many countries with the notable exception of the US and Canada have adopted Europe's safety regulations.

Because it is more costly to engineer a car that is sold globally for two sets of different safety standards, it would seem to make sense that the US work with Europe to develop a standard set of safety rules. But making sense isn't always the top priority of government organizations.

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New Government Safety Standards Will Cost Carmakers and Car Buyers - Autotrader