Senate bill could send automaker employees to life sentences in prison

Congress is proposing to send auto executives and their employees to life in prison if they don't fix their cars.

That's not an exaggeration. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who led a Senate hearing against General Motors CEO Mary Barra in April, is sponsoring the Motor Vehicle and Highway Safety Enhancement Act (read the entire bill here). It's an effort to prevent the corporate sloppiness that resulted in at least 13 deaths from faulty ignition switches on GM cars.

The details are simple. Any auto employee who might handle vehicle safety and was found to have ignored a problem under current vehicle compliance laws — the same laws governing recall processes that GM admittedly did not abide after 13 years — can face a life sentence if anyone dies from an accident related to that problem. For a "serious bodily injury," that could mean a maximum of 15 years in prison. And for "any other case," the bill would allow a judge to impose a five-year prison sentence.

Currently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does not have any enforcement power. It is merely a regulatory agency with the ability to hand out civil fines of up to $7,000 per day or a maximum of $17.35 million in each instance. It cannot even force automakers to initiate a recall, although since most automakers are reluctant to fight a U.S. attorney in federal court, that usually isn't a problem.

But McCaskill wants to make recall violations — and indeed, any sort of noncomplying car that's imported or sold in the U.S. under certain volumes — a criminal offense.

"With millions of Americans behind the wheel every day, and more than 33,000 killed on our roads each year, we’ve got to do more to keep our cars and the roads we drive them on safe," McCaskill said in a statement. “Painful recent examples at Toyota and GM have shown us we also must make it easier to hold accountable those who jeopardize consumers’ safety."

Other portions of her bill ban rental car companies from selling cars under recalls or buying cars with missing safety equipment. GM and Enterprise took heat after the rental company sold cars from its fleet as if they had all standard equipment, when in fact GM had let Enterprise buy cars without side airbags as part of a special order. McCaskill would also increase funding for the NHTSA.

But should automaker workers face the same kind of penalties handed down in drug, weapons and manslaughter trials? Increasing fines and enforcement power is a good idea, but we're not so sure McCaskill's extreme measures are the right answer for ensuring safer cars.

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