Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to Bill S-2, an act to amend the Motor Vehicle Safety Act and to make a consequential amendment to another act.
The bill was introduced in the Senate by the Leader of the Government in the Senate on May 11, 2016, referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Transport and Communications in October, and one month later the committee reported the bill back to the Senate with an amendment. The bill passed third reading in the Senate, as amended, on February 2. It has been in the queue for some time. I recall being on call every evening of the last week of the last session, prepared to debate the legislation.
This issue is important. Whether via public transit, personal vehicle, foot, or bike, nearly every Canadian relies on roads to get around and/or receive the goods and services they need on a daily basis. A trip to the grocery store may feel routine to the drivers and passengers, but millions of hours of work have gone into designing the technology and innovations that power the vehicles in which we travel.
As with anything, vehicles have thousands of moving parts and despite the best of intentions, occasionally systems do not work as they were designed to. That is why Canada needs a robust regulatory regime that ensures Canadians are informed of risks and that vehicles that are a safety hazard to the driver and passengers as well as other road users are repaired or taken off the road with haste.
I will discuss the content of the bill further in my remarks, but first it is important to note that beginning in November 2015, the Auditor General began a 10-month examination on the efficacy of the processes at the Transport Canada motor vehicle directorate. His report was published on November 29 and is worthy of further study. The overall message highlighted a number of issues, and I will quote from the introduction. It states:
Overall, we found that Transport Canada did not develop motor vehicle safety standards to respond to emerging risks and issues in a timely manner.... We could not always determine how the Department used evidence and research to develop or amend safety standards.
I will discuss the Auditor General's report in greater detail later in my remarks, but for now I will just note that the measures included in Bill S-2 would have no bearing on many of the structural problems uncovered by the AG in his fall report.
By and large, auto manufacturers voluntarily initiate recalls. In 2015, five million passenger vehicles were recalled in Canada. That is five million vehicles recalled out of just under 24 million licenced vehicles in Canada. Between 2010 and 2016, manufacturers issued at least 318 recalls for which Transport Canada had not received any complaints.
Most of the time when an issue is identified, whether by the manufacturer or Transport Canada, the manufacturer begins a recall. The manufacturer gets in contact with each impacted vehicle's owner and the vehicle is repaired at no cost to the owner. It is almost routine, but on occasion a difference of opinion exists between Transport Canada and a manufacturer.
Right now the Motor Vehicle Safety Act limits the role the Minister of Transport can play in issuing notices of safety defects and criminally prosecuting manufacturers when a potentially dangerous flaw is found. The reality is that the last time a minister of transport criminally prosecuted a manufacturer was nearly 25 years ago, in 1993, when Transport Canada took Chrysler Canada to court over defective tire winch cables. The case was dismissed in 2000.
Criminally prosecuting manufacturers has not proven to be an effective or efficient way to ensure compliance with the Motor Vehicle Safety Act. Since that last prosecution 23 years ago, manufacturers have voluntarily issued thousands of different recalls.
What would this legislation do and how would it make our roads safer? Proposed sections 10.5 and 10.51 would amend the Motor Vehicle Safety Act to provide the Minister of Transport with the authority to order a recall and order companies to correct the defect at no cost to consumers.
The intent is pretty straightforward here, but the process outlined certainly is not. The minister must, before issuing any order, make a preliminary determination on the basis of testing, analysis, inspection, examination, or research that the minister considers appropriate. Then he or she must notify the company in writing and publish a notice of preliminary determination and invite persons to make comments in writing. Here is where the ambiguous language shows up:
The Minister shall not make a final decision that an order is necessary unless the Minister has taken into account information that he or she considers relevant.
It raises this question: how else would a minister make a decision, other than taking into account information that he or she considers relevant? I find it surprising that the minister can make a decision based on information that he or she considers relevant, which may be anecdotal, rather than on repeatable testing and facts.
Once again, nearly five million vehicles were recalled last year in Canada, so it is not as though manufacturers are not generally being proactively cautious. This tool will not be used with any frequency, if ever.
Proposed sections 16.01 and 16.1 would give the Minister of Transport the power to impose financial penalties on companies up to a daily cap of $200,000, depending on the offence.
Additionally, this clause grants Transport Canada the authority to oppose non-monetary penalties on companies, referred to as compliance agreements, to promote acquiescence with the act. Furthermore, the clause gives the Governor in Council the discretion to prescribe by regulation the total maximum payable for a related series or class of violations.
Overall, clause 16 is straightforward. If monetary and non-monetary penalties are properly applied, they can have a positive impact in promoting compliance with the action.
Proposed section 10.4 of the bill increases the number of notices that a company must send to consumers once a recall process has been initiated. The issue that has been highlighted in the Senate about this clause is that parts or the technology to fix a defect are not always available, and a date for when a repair will be possible is not immediately known. Theoretically, companies would be required to send a new notice every time a new timeline for repairs has been established.
In the case of Takata airbags, where millions of cars were affected and the company had gone bankrupt, estimates on when new parts would become available were changing every day. A manufacturer would theoretically have had to send out an updated notice of recall on every update.
As consumers start getting multiple letters advising yet another day for when new parts or a new fix will be available, there is a real risk that these notices will begin to be ignored and the number of vehicles that are brought to a dealership for repairs could drop below the current 78%.
Proposed section 15 of the bill would give Transport Canada inspectors significant new powers. Some of these powers are quite surprising for what is considered technical legislation, so I will quote directly from the bill. For example:
...an inspector...may enter on and pass through or over private property...without being liable for doing so and without any person having the right to object to that use of the property.
...examine any vehicle, equipment or component that is in the place;
...examine any document that is in the place, make copies of it or take extracts from it;
...use or cause to be used a computer or other device that is in the place to examine data that is contained in or available to a computer system or reproduce it or cause it to be reproduced...
...remove any vehicle, equipment or component from the place for the purpose of examination or conducting tests.
To summarize, an inspector can enter into any private property, so long as it is not a private dwelling, without being liable for trespassing, inspect any vehicle or equipment, copy any data from a computer, and remove any equipment for further testing, all this to verify compliance with the act, rather than to verify non-compliance.
The difference is significant. Verifying noncompliance implies that the inspector is following up on a series of complaints from consumers or an investigation taken up by Transport Canada engineers. Verifying compliance implies that Transport Canada can conduct inspections without having to demonstrate cause for doing so. In our justice system in which the presumption of innocence is the foundation of all, the burden of proof is on the one who declares, not the one who denies.
The proposed act would also give the inspector strong authority to order testimony at manufacturing plants as follows:
Every person there shall answer all of the inspector's reasonable questions related to the inspection, provide access to all electronic data that the inspector may reasonably require.
This gives an inspector the power to interview not just managers and the owners of a facility, but the line workers without their union representatives present. Whether the information collected during these spot interviews could be used during the prosecution is not defined in the proposed act.
“Reasonable” is also a loose term that should be better defined. Beyond getting to a less ambiguous definition, if there is a disagreement between an employee and an inspector over what is reasonable, who will settle that dispute?
Proposed section 8.1 of the bill gives the minister the power to order a manufacturer to conduct specific tests on their products to verify compliance with the act. Transport Canada will never have the same resources and know how manufacturers have to test their own products, so this clause partially rectifies the asymmetry of information. The problem here is that people cannot ask for something if they do not know it exists, so while requesting a test is good, it is a lot like fishing. There are no guarantees.
Proposed section 13 gives the minister the power to suspend an existing regulation for a period of three years or less if it is in the interests of public safety to do so, or if this exemption will promote innovation that will make vehicles safer. I believe that lengthening the amount of time the minister can suspend a regulation from one to three years will give companies more time to experiment and test new processes. This is a good thing overall.
What is missing in this legislation? The bill does not cover important replacement parts like windshields, brake lines, brake fluids, or replacement airbags. These areas are covered in the United States, so I am surprised that they are not a part of the legislation we are discussing today.
Earlier in my remarks, I referenced the Auditor General's report on the motor vehicle safety directorate at Transport Canada, released in late November 2016. The report noted that Transport Canada gives disproportionate influence to manufacturers when writing up regulations or when looking to amend existing regulations. This is important because broad public consultations on safety-related issues do keep our roads safe.
Unfortunately, Bill S-2 does not enshrine a requirement to consult beyond the manufacturers. Considering that Bill S-2 spells out in incredible detail what steps the minister must take before ordering a recall, I am surprised that a similar process for setting new and amending existing regulations cannot be enshrined in law.
The Auditor General also found that despite years of research on the need for stronger booster seat anchors, as booster seats now weigh more, Transport Canada did not implement regulations that follow the findings of its research because it would in this case be detrimental to trade. There is no purpose in having Transport Canada conduct years of research on a safety matter if we will only implement it after the United States does. Bill S-2 will not address this problem.
Paragraph 4.42 of the Auditor General's report noted that Transport Canada possesses incomplete data on collisions and injuries in the national collision database because provinces are not providing the information.
Furthermore, paragraph 4.43 notes that Transport Canada does not have access to data from insurance companies, hospitals, police, and others involved in vehicle safety matters, so it is missing information that could help inform future vehicle safety priorities. Neither of the issues concerning data quality raised by the Auditor General's report will be fixed or even partially addressed by Bill S-2.
Finally, the Auditor General noted that the motor vehicle safety directorate's budget had been compressed in 2016 and that the directorate subsequently did not have a long-term operational plan for its activities. For example, the budget for crashworthiness testing was cut by 59% in fiscal year 2016-17. At the same time, funding for six regional teams situated in engineering departments in universities and colleges that were charged to assist in outreach activities on vehicle safety also saw their funding cut. These regional teams will no longer be able to feed information into the regulatory decision-making process, which the Auditor General had noted was not functioning as well as it could.
Despite these cuts, the department chose to announce the construction of a $5.4-million outdoor crash barrier at the motor vehicle testing centre in budget 2016. Try to square that circle. Given that the budget allocation for testing had been significantly reduced, the Auditor General questioned the rationale for proceeding with the project. Whether this item would have been included in budget 2016 if the Auditor General had not started his evaluation is unknown.
In conclusion, while Bill S-2 will help advance vehicle safety, I believe it contains clear omissions. I hope the government will be willing to consider amendments to improve this piece of legislation and motor vehicle safety in Canada. Finally, I do note that statistics from the U.S. indicate that less than 5% of all motor vehicle injuries and fatalities can be attributed to vehicle maintenance and safety-related defects. While the bill is a good start, more attention needs to be given to addressing the other 95%.