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Auto safety bill scaled back in face of industry opposition

LOS ANGELES - The sweeping legislation that grew out of Toyota Motor Corp.'s sudden-acceleration crisis - heralded as the most important auto safety bill in a decade - has been scaled back significantly in the face of auto industry opposition.

The bill originally gave federal officials the power to levy unlimited fines against automakers for safety violations and mandated first-ever safety standards for vehicle electronics.

These and other key revisions to the bill have disappointed, but not entirely surprised, auto safety advocates.

They point out that the auto industry - which has spent about $50 million a year on lobbying over the past decade - has a long track record of weakening vehicle safety legislation.

"The auto industry has had undue influence on this legislation," said Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Among the changes:

Fines for safety violations

Original proposal: Unlimited fines, which regulators said could have resulted in multibillion-dollar penalties.

Latest: Fines capped at $200 million.

Event data recorders

Original proposal: The so-called "black boxes" would have to be installed by 2015.

Latest: No deadline set.

Safety standards for vehicle electronics

Original proposal: Mandated changes in gas pedal configurations and standards for engine electronics.

Latest: The secretary of transportation would only have to "consider" the changes.

Robert Strassburger, a vice president at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents Ford, General Motors, Toyota and other automakers, praised the legislation, but said some of the original deadlines were too difficult to meet.

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