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March 24, 2010 by James Goodwin

New Health and Safety Journalism Publication Launches Today

Today, FairWarning—a new non-profit online news journal focusing on stories involving worker and consumer protection issues—went live. On its first day, the site offered dozens of short news stories along with three longer investigative pieces.

FairWarning says its mission is “to arm consumers and workers with valuable information, and to spotlight reckless business practices and lax oversight by government agencies.” The organization says that the mainstream media is no longer able to play this “watchdog” role effectively due to shrinking budgets.

The publication’s first three investigative stories suggest that FairWarning will serve as a valuable resource to public interest organizations and policymakers interested in protecting the health and safety of workers and consumers. For example, one story investigates how General Motors and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have failed to protect consumers from a line of older pickup trucks that frequently combust during accidents due to the faulty design of their gas tanks. It's particularly relevant given that some of the questions the story asks could just as easily be asked of NHTSA and Toyota regarding their response to the spate of unintended acceleration problems in Toyota’s cars.

A second story examines the …

March 15, 2010 by Ben Somberg
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A year after the contaminated drywall story went big, a "test trial" over damages from the material begins today in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. The court has posted documents regarding the case here, and outlets covering the case include the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Bradenton Herald, and Palm Beach Post.

March 15, 2010 by Ben Somberg
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The Wall Street Journal had what seemed like a major scoop over the weekend:

A federal safety investigation of the Toyota Prius that was involved in a dramatic incident on a California highway last week found a particular pattern of wear on the car's brakes that raises questions about the driver's version of the event, three people familiar with the investigation said.

...

During and after the incident, Mr. Sikes said he was using heavy pressure on his brake pedal at high speeds.

But the investigation of the vehicle, carried out jointly by safety officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Toyota engineers, didn't find signs the brakes had been applied at full force at high speeds over a sustained period of time, the three people familiar with the investigation said.

The brakes were discolored and showed wear, but the pattern of friction …

March 1, 2010 by Rena Steinzor
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The congressional hearings so far on “sudden unintended acceleration” (SUA) in Toyota cars should have made two truths obvious to Washington policymakers. First, the strategy of counting on major manufacturers to voluntarily ensure that their consumer products are safe is unworkable in a competitive market, and second, safety agencies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) need to walk softly but carry a very large stick.

Gone are the days when we could reasonably expect government technical experts to shadow manufacturers’ design engineers in order to coax them into taking care, even in a market with fewer than ten major manufacturers. But NHTSA still should have stepped out in front of the strong industry trend to rely on electronic controls or, as it is colloquially known, “driving by wire,” which is the likely source of SUA, at least in the Camry, and required all manufacturers to …

Feb. 22, 2010 by Ben Somberg
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Representatives Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak have released a batch of documents this afternoon on the day before their committee hearing on the Toyota debacle. Their focus is largely on the issue of the possible role of electronic failures as a cause of sudden unintended acceleration cases. They criticized Toyota's response to the reports of electronic problems, and in their letter to transportaiton secretary Ray LaHood, say:

Our preliminary review of the documents and the information learned from the meetings with NHTSA officials raises two significant concerns. First, NHTSA appears to lack the expertise needed to evaluate defects in vehicle electronic controls. ... Second, NHTSA's response to complaints of sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles appears to have been seriously deficient.

 

Feb. 9, 2010 by Ben Somberg
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In a letter today, CPR President Rena Steinzor and board member Sidney Shapiro recommend to Congress questions it should investigate to get to the bottom of the Toyota accelerator/recall matter that's all over the news. The letter focuses in particular on the role of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and examines the agency's shortcomings in achieving its mission to protect public safety.

To be clear, the Toyota case is about much more than engineering failure. It is a massive regulatory failure. One challenge confronting Congress is to determine how and why NHTSA failed to contain this problem after reports of safety failures began to surface several years ago. Did NHTSA lack sufficient statutory authority? Are its procedures too cumbersome to allow it to protect consumers in such instances?

The letter was sent to Rep. Edolphus Towns, chair of the House Committee on …

Feb. 2, 2010 by Rena Steinzor
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Eighty percent of the toys sold in the United States are manufactured abroad, the vast majority in China. Because China has no effective regulatory structure, these imports are notoriously dangerous for children. The most prominent example is toys coated with lead paint, made that way because in China, lead paint is actually cheaper than the safe variety because the Chinese have increased the mining of lead ore by 50 percent since 2001. (Let’s not even imagine what Chinese manufacturers are selling to their own people). But it’s not just lead-laden toys. Independent investigations also discovered that Chinese manufacturers were using a chemical coating on tiny glue dots sold as part of a craft set for young kids that metabolized into the date rape drug gamma hydroxyl butyrate by kids who ate them. Some did, and ended up in the hospital. And just this Christmas, scientists …

Feb. 1, 2010 by Rena Steinzor
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As we feared, in an effort to save pitiably small amounts of money in the discretionary (non-military) portion of the budget, President Obama’s FY 2011 budget, announced today, shortchanges very real threats to public health. Case in point: the Food and Drug Administration’s ongoing struggle to improve the safety of the American food supply. (FDA regulates 80 percent of it; USDA regulates the 20 percent that is meat and poultry, and that is, if you’ll pardon, its own kettle of fish) Each year in the United States, food-borne illnesses cause 5,000 deaths, hospitalize 325,000, and sicken 1 million, and no realistic observer of the FDA’s efforts thinks they are remotely adequate. Yet the Obama budget increases total spending for the FDA’s food and drug missions by a paltry $80 million, barely a rounding error in the funds dispersed for the …

Feb. 1, 2010 by Ben Somberg
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Toyota is on the media offensive this morning, announcing that it has found the problem (sticking pedals, it says) and is fixing it. Some articles indicated NHTSA has signed off or given "clearance" for the plan, but Toyota specifically noted that while NHTSA had reviewed its plan, it has not "signed off" on it, as it doesn't have the power to do so.

Two articles in particular have raised further questions.

The LATimes published its investigation over the weekend, questioning whether sticky gas pedals are the whole problem:

Federal vehicle safety records reviewed by The Times also cast doubt on Toyota's claims that sticky gas pedals were a significant factor in the growing reports of runaway vehicles. Of more than 2,000 motorist complaints of sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles over the last decade, just 5% blamed a sticking gas pedal, the analysis …

Jan. 28, 2010 by Sidney Shapiro
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When my children were growing up, they loved the “Where’s Waldo” book series. Each page had an illustrated picture chock full of people and objects; hidden somewhere among the mass of detail was a small picture of a cartoon character named Waldo. When the Toyota Motor Corporation announced this week that it was stopping the production and sales of several of its car models because of a dangerous problem with unintended acceleration, we had a “Where’s Waldo” scenario. The National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA), the regulator which is supposed to protect the American public from this sort of event, is nowhere to be seen, hidden inconspicuously in the background, hard to spot because of its disturbingly minor role in the unfolding events.

As I wrote earlier, Toyota had previously announced that it would replace the accelerator pedals on about 3.8 million vehicles in the …

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