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Cooperation over regulation: DOT, automakers pledge to make nice

"Tumultuous."

That is one word among many possible choices elected by an auto writer for the Associated Press to describe relations over the past couple years between federal safety regulators and the auto industry.

And that description is certainly apt. Many of our readers thinking back can likely conjure up with relative ease debacles relating to air bags propelling shrapnel into people's faces and cars that suddenly override drivers' intentions by accelerating to frighteningly high speeds. They might readily recollect stories about vehicles suddenly stalling out on the road because of an ignition-switch defect.

And it is not inconceivable -- in fact, it is perhaps even likely -- that they know of someone who has received a recall notice signaling a required vehicle repair. Perhaps they themselves have an appointment to get their car into a shop for a needed fix.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and other regulatory agencies have been disconcerted by such safety lapses for some time now, and have been busily engaged in efforts to timely identify dangers and effectively deal with them through regulations and enforcement actions, such as recalls and fines.

As noted by the writer cited above, that tack has been largely unavailing, in that regulators have been slow to act. In their hesitancy, they have suffered sharp criticisms for an alleged "inability to identify safety problems and take action."

And automakers haven't responded well to a "let's pass more rules" strategy targeting their industry.

A new safety-focused agreement between the DOT and automakers announced just last week prominently mutes the regulatory scheme and promotes, instead, a cooperative approach between regulators and the auto industry. The stated belief of both government officials and ranking industry principals stresses that voluntary sharing of safety and technology-related information rather than a one-sided dictate from the government will better identify trends, areas of concern and purposeful enforcement actions.

DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx voices hope that voluntary agreements in lieu of simply more regulation will materially enhance safety outcomes and promote the public interest.

"I don't need to recount the crisis after crisis we've been dealing with," he said last week pursuant to announcing the new voluntary-based strategy.

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