The Senate's "Dr. No"

This blog was written by our colleague, Benjamin Kelley, a member of the board of directors of the Center for Auto Safety.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) is a medical doctor who seems to have forgotten his Hippocratic Oath, which requires him to "do no harm." Coburn is already well known for using his position to block, or as they say in the Senate put a "hold" on, the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which will provide funds for the health needs of the many selfless responders to the 9/11 tragedy. A firestorm of criticism, even from his own party's leadership, forced Coburn to drop his hold at the last moment, and it passed the Senate.

But Coburn has maintained his reputation as the Senate's "Dr. No" by blocking two critically important consumer safety bills, the Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act. As a result, both bills died in the waning days of the lame-duck Congress.

With highway deaths once again rising after a four-year downturn, Congress' failure to pass these two bills is a public health tragedy. In a year that began with runaway Toyotas and ended with Ford Windstar rear axle fractures, one thing is clear: NHTSA does not have the authority or resources to stand up to an auto industry that continues to place profits above safety.

The Motor Vehicle Safety Act (MVSA), S. 3302, addresses pressing and well-documented concerns about a serious safety defect in Toyota vehicles that the manufacturer tried to hide and the U.S. Department of Transportation tried to ignore. Toyota crashes caused by their "sudden unintended acceleration" defect have killed nearly 100 people. Toyota belatedly has recalled more than five million vehicles to fix the life-threatening flaw. One crash killed a California Highway Patrol officer and his family. As a family member frantically called 911 to get help, the officer desperately tried to stop the speeding Lexus he was driving from hurtling down the roadway. At least seven hearings in the House and Senate were held to examine the danger posed by sudden acceleration in Toyotas. They uncovered widespread corporate malfeasance and identified serious gaps and conflicts of interest in federal regulatory oversight of the auto industry.

S. 3302 included a number of critical measures that would stop such irresponsible anti-consumer and anti-safety corporate behavior. For example, the bill would have required individual corporate officials to take responsibility for the accuracy of information the company provides to government investigators. It would have deterred violations of safety laws by significantly increasing civil penalties and allowed the Secretary of Transportation to expedite safety recalls when there is an imminent threat to public safety. Other provisions directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue overdue and needed vehicle safety standards to protect families and prevent future sudden acceleration deaths and injuries. The bill also would have provided greater transparency and consumer access to vehicle defect information.

Dr. No's second victim was the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act (MESA), S. 554, which would have required passenger buses to provide such occupant protections already required in automobiles as seat belts, stronger roofs, anti-ejection window glazing, rollover stability, and fire prevention. The bill would have implemented many of the safety recommendations the National Transportation Safety Board issued over the past 40 years in response to fatal motorcoach crashes. With nearly 20 deaths and 8,000 injuries each year, and more than 700 million bus trips taken annually, requirements to protect families that use this inexpensive and increasingly popular mode of transportation are long overdue.

Consumers need to trust that the vehicles they buy are safe, that manufacturers build reliable and defect-free vehicles, and that federal standards and government oversight ensure their safety. Instead of a democracy where every senator gets to vote, the Senate rules allow one senator to play "legislative dictator" in the waning days of Congress. Coburn's "hold" actions prevented the Senate and the House from voting on these two urgently needed vehicle safety bills.

"Doctor" Coburn's disregard for the health and well-being of Americans is a disgrace to the medical profession.