Congress has had a long and generally friendly relationship with the auto industry and its suppliers. They are significant employers in many congressional districts and important pillars of the US economy.
But that relationship, which some consumer advocates believe may have delayed safety equipment and new regulations, is about to come under pressure.
Starting tomorrow, both the House and the Senate will hold hearings to find out who knew what and when about the Bridgestone/Firestone tires that are alleged to have caused 88 fatalities on Ford Explorers.
Those hearings may become a springboard for the government rethinking tire-safety standards - something that has not been done since the advent of steel-belted tires more than 30 years ago.
The hearings, which will be widely watched, will keep the limelight on Firestone which is trying to replace 6.5 million 15 inch tires because of the potential for them to lose their tread. There may also be tough questions for Ford CEO Jacques Nasser, who is expected to face questions about Ford's recommendations on tire inflation and loads.
In the past, the auto industry has often had its way in Washington. In the early 1970s, legendary auto executive Lee Ioccoca met with President Richard Nixon to convince him not to enact a new law regarding air bags in cars. The rule on air bags was not issued until the first year of the Carter administration.
Now, the focus will be on Congress to see where it goes with highway safety issues.
For embattled Firestone, the news just keeps getting worse. Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) asked the company to expand its voluntary recall to another 1.4 million tires. The company refused, and the government is considering a formal recall order.
And yesterday, Venezuelan officials said Bridgestone/Firestone had agreed to a recall of 62,000 tires, which the consumer-protection agency blame for the deaths of 46 people there. The agency had been urging the country's prosecutor to investigate both Ford and Firestone.
While Firestone tries to cope, the government plans to spread the news about its tire woes.
Next week, an international group meeting at The Hague to harmonize international tire standards will be informed about the Firestone issues.
"We're now designing a test program to figure out why they failed," says a spokesman for NHTSA. "We'll make sure people are updated."
The Firestone hearings come at a time when Congress is about to tackle some contentious transportation-related issues.
Consumer groups have long wanted the NHTSA to give consumers information on the propensity of light vehicles to roll over.
NHTSA, part of the Department of Transportation, planned to post on a Web site the results of a mathematical model that predicts vehicle stability.
But the automobile industry is opposed to the model because it fails to include mitigating factors such as driver behavior and the number of passengers in the vehicle.
Auto industry arguments resonated with Sen. Richard Shelby (R) of Ala., the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on transportation.
"The senator believes any rating system should be based on comprehensive information, not just a mathematical formula," says Andrea Andrews, a spokeswoman for Senator Shelby.
"He believes there should be some crash testing," she adds.
As a result, Shelby has proposed that the National Academy of Sciences conduct a study to determine if the mathematical information will help consumers. The delay is discouraging to highway safety advocates.
"The rollover standard has essentially been hanging around since 1973," says Jackie Gillan of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. Like Shelby, consumer groups would like more than a mathematical test. "But at least it's a step in the right direction," says Ms. Gillan.
The information is important because rollovers kill about 9,500 people each year, accounting for about one-third of all automobile and light-truck fatalities.
And according to consumer groups, sport-utility vehicles (SUVs), with their higher center of gravity, have a higher propensity to roll. In 1998, rollovers accounted for more than 60 percent of people who died in SUV accidents, compared with 22 percent of car occupants.
On the road for 16 hours
The House and Senate conferees will also take up the issue of how many hours of service truck and bus drivers can log. NHTSA has proposed lowering the total number of hours a truck driver can be behind the wheel from 16 hours per day to 12 hours. The government agency held eight hearings to change the 67-year-old regulation. The trucking industry, however, opposes the current proposal.
"In addition to safety concerns, motor carriers, large and small, say they will need to hire up to 30 percent more drivers, due to the proposal's lack of flexibility to cope with adverse traffic, weather, or loading dock delays," says Walter McCormick Jr., president of the Alexandria, Va.-based American Trucking Association.
The trucking industry's arguments have also appealed to Shelby, who introduced legislation that would effectively scuttle any change.
"He believes the proposed changes mean more trucks during peak traffic hours to move the same amount of freight and will result in higher prices to consumers," says Ms. Andrews.
But driver fatigue plays a significant role in 15 percent of all commercial vehicle accidents, according to the US Department of Transportation. Fatigue causes some 755 deaths and more than 19,000 injuries each year. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater opposes Shelby's efforts to stop the rule-making process.
Recently, Mr. Slater said he would consider "possibly" advising the president to veto the legislation if the Shelby proposal is not withdrawn.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society