Hugh McQuaid Photo
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who’s spent much of his career advocating for consumers, made his first trip Monday to Consumer Reports’ 327-acre test track in Colchester where he pressed for the federal government to implement some stalled automobile regulations.

Consumer Reports has run the test track in a sparsely populated area of Connecticut since the 1980s. Every year, the magazine anonymously buys dozens of cars and puts them through a battery of tests on the facility. Tires were squealing around the track Monday during Blumenthal’s visit.

The senator was seeking Monday to raise awareness of delays in the implementation of regulations passed in 2008. The rules require auto manufacturers to increase visibility of the area behind their cars or install a device that can detect objects behind the car.

The goal is to reduce the number of children who are hit, injured, and sometimes killed each year when a driver accidentally backs over them.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
The driver can’t see the cone (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

The blind spot behind most vehicles may be larger than you think. Consumer Reports staff demonstrated the problem in one of their garages. Jennifer Stockburger, director of auto testing operations, positioned a 28-inch traffic cone behind an SUV while one of Blumenthal’s aides sat in the drivers seat.

The cone was around the height of a small child and brightly colored. Stockburger slowly moved it away from the vehicle and waited for Blumenthal’s staffer to signal that he could see it from the front seat. She had moved the cone more than 15 feet before it was visible to the driver.

The rear-view blind zone varies by vehicle and the height of the driver, but the problem is not just limited to SUVs and pickup trucks. Ami Gadhia, a senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, said in some cases a whole kindergarten class could fit in the no-see zone behind vehicles.

Blumenthal said the regulatory agency responsible for implementing the new rules, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, has been sitting on them and “needlessly delaying them way past the statutory deadline.”

Blumenthal continued: “Lack of rear view visibility can be literally lethal for young children and hundreds of these accidents have occurred, killing young children that could have been prevented and can be prevented in the future if there are devices mandatory — absolutely standard — for all cars.”

He also was seeking to promote a bill he has proposed that would prohibit rental car agencies from putting consumers into vehicles that have not had all of their recalled defects repaired.

Current law prohibits auto dealers from selling cars that are under recall, but Blumenthal said there is a loophole in the law that does not apply the same standard to rental companies.

“These consumers who rent the cars have no knowledge, they are unsuspecting,” he said. “They drive the cars and literally they can cause death as well as injury.”

Out on the test track, Consumer Reports staff had a demonstration ready to illustrate the importance of auto recalls. Gadhia said the magazine played an instrumental role in the 2010 recall of a Lexus SUV after experts found that its Electronic Stability Control was not engaging correctly.

A driver simulated the malfunction on the track with a Chevy Malibu moving at about 50 mph. With the stability control on, the car corrected itself when the driver cut it into a tight turn. On second run with the stability control intentionally switched off, the Malibu’s rear end swung out on the same turn. By the time the vehicle came to a stop it had spun almost 180 degrees.

“That’s the kind of recall you would want to have your rental car to have done,” Gadhia said.

Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports’ director of auto testing, said every new vehicle is now required to have the control mechanism. Although it has been a feature for high-end automobiles since around 1998, it became mandatory in 2012, he said. Fisher said Consumer Reports helped push to make stability control a standard feature in cars.

“We would stop recommending vehicles that didn’t have it. So that helped get the manufacturers’ attention even before the law was implemented,” he said.