Toyota recall: What next?
Toyota needs to settle its top management, gain control of its quality control, review its electronic engine systems, and get rid of its culture of secrecy and manipulation of public safety agencies.
The spotlight on the sudden-acceleration defects of Toyota vehicles has opened a window on lax enforcement by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the serious problems caused by deregulation over the last several decades.Skip to next paragraph
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As the fatality and injury toll climbs – and Toyota sales plummet – it’s time to ask why the sleepy Washington safety sentinels at the Department of Transportation aren’t doing the job the people expect of them.
Part of the problem is the deregulatory mania that has gripped Washington since the Ronald Reagan years. Since the Reagan administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been severely cut back. Its budget has been nearly halved (when adjusted for inflation), which has left it with a far smaller technical staff.
Former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook has testified to the need for an immediate budget increase of $100 million just to assure that NHTSA has the technical personnel and capability to meet its obligations in the areas of safety standards, defect recall, enforcement, and research.
At a time when about 40,000 Americans die in cars each year and hundreds of thousands more are injured, NHTSA’s motor vehicle safety budget is a mere $140 million. By comparison, taxpayers will pay more than four times as much – about $675 million – to guard the US Embassy in Baghdad.
A better-funded agency, empowered to assume a more aggressive watchdog role, might have responded far more quickly to the troubles at Toyota. Toyota introduced electronic throttle controls in 2002 on certain Camry and Lexus models, and since that time consumer complaints to NHTSA about sudden acceleration have quadrupled for these models. But in response to formal defect petitions, NHTSA opened and closed several investigations without action.
To this day, the agency has not issued testing protocols by which to judge Toyota’s performance, nor has it proposed safety standards for electronic throttles or brake overrides. Not until January did NHTSA even demand that the automaker supply the technical information it needs to conduct a comprehensive analysis.
Given the lax regulation, it is not surprising that Toyota responded to the seven-year-old sudden-acceleration problem by first blaming driver error, then by claiming floor mat interference, then by admitting that many of the 2.3 million recalled Toyotas in the United States had a gas pedal prone to sticking. But for the fact that an August 2009 San Diego crash was caught on a 911 tape when passengers of the car called police to report their accelerator was stuck, there probably would never have been a recall.
That crash – which killed an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and his three passengers – would have been, like so many others, attributed to driver error and swept under the carpet.
The decrease in oversight comes at a time when the engineering of vehicles is becoming ever more complex. Today, NHTSA still has not a single expert in electronic automotive systems, yet drivers are increasingly losing control of their cars to these systems.