Saturday’s Washington Post crystallized a trend of reporting in recent days showing that neither misaligned floor mats nor defective pedals are to blame for all acceleration problems in Toyota cars, at least not in the 2005 model Camry. The car, which has neither piece of offending equipment, does have electronic acceleration controls that are beginning to emerge as a potential cause of the problem. If those computerized systems are at the heart of even a small universe of Toyota’s problems, as long-time auto safety expert Clarence Ditlow told the Post, the problem should raise “a huge red flag.”
Automobile manufacturers have been working for several years to perfect electronic controls in their cars because those systems are much lighter and therefore are important in the effort to improve fuel economy by giving engines less weight to drag around. But you can scour the public record of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in vain to find any mention that federal regulators are focusing on the problems caused by electronic systems, a fact that is a damning indictment of how far the agency sank into lethargy during the Bush years.
NHTSA’s job is to spot trends in auto manufacturing and get out ahead of them, not to react after a sufficient number of deaths and injuries have brought defects to the front pages of newspapers across the country. Investigating “defects” after the fact is not a viable alternative to prospective, prescriptive rules because NHTSA’s burden is more challenging at that phase and people have already been killed and injured by the time regulators rush in to mop up the fiasco. So, for example, a prospective rule on electronic controls could require the installation of a viable emergency braking system that could be used by consumers in any circumstance when the electronic system malfunctions and sudden acceleration occurs, and would avoid the problem of sending regulators out to prove a systematic defect in delicate electronic systems after fatal accidents, on wrecked cars, and case by case.
After many misfires, the Obama Administration finally got David Strickland, its second candidate for NHTSA administrator confirmed in late December, and he has had his hands full trying to get a grip on the ballooning Toyota scandal. On Tuesday, the first of a series of congressional hearings will commence on these events. Legislators will be focused on looking tough when Toyota officials take the witness chair. But NHTSA’s role in the unfolding mess must receive at least equal attention.
We hope that the usual partisan games do not eclipse the fundamental point. Yes, the Obama Administration was slow in getting an acceptable, confirmable candidate up to the Senate and is ultimately responsible for the agency’s competence at this point. And, predictably, Republicans will be strongly tempted to beat a tattoo on Strickland’s head. In fact, the temptation to be opportunistic at the expense of the public interest morphed into unbelievably extreme and irresponsible behavior when four governors suggested that NHTSA cannot take control of this problem because the U.S. “owns” General Motors and therefore has a conflict of interest in policing Toyota.
Yet one year of delay is not nearly the problem that dawdling for a decade over electronic controls has become. If they have their constituents’ interests at heart, members of both parties will drop the blame game and focus on how to turn this vital agency around. No matter how you twist it, safe cars are obviously a bipartisan issue.
Three reasons account for NHTSA’s passivity on electronics:
- Morale. The agency’s staff is sufficiently beaten down by 40 years of guerilla battles with manufacturers to the point that they cannot imagine launching a major standard-setting rulemaking on a design issue as complex as electronic steering and acceleration controls. Only strong-minded leadership and solid support from Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (a Republican), and the White House can turn this dysfunctional culture around.
- Resources. In constant dollars, NHTSA’s budget is at roughly the same (see page 7) level as it was in 1972, shortly after it was created, even as automobiles have become more complex, more varied, and more numerous, and as the number of passenger miles driven has increased. President Obama’s budget request for NHTSA in FY2011 is $878 million, but of that total, fully two-thirds will be devoted to grants to the states to support driver misbehavior programs (drinking, texting, and problems with elderly drivers). To hire the expert consultants it will need to mount an effective preventive rulemaking, NHTSA will need more dollars, and this step should be the first priority of congressional overseers.
- Capture. The press has also reported on the “revolving door” effect at NHTSA: key safety officials went to work at Toyota where they were immediately assigned to fend off their formal colleagues in investigations of Toyota defects dating back to 2004. Congress needs to demand that NHTSA adopt rules to bar former officials from working on any matter before their agencies for a set period of time.
One of the most stomach-turning aspects of NHTSA’s complicity with manufacturers over the years is the often repeated “blame the victim” mantra that drivers are primarily at fault in fatal accidents. The Camry incidents described in the Washington Post involved drivers in their seventies, and we can just hear Toyota’s lawyers inquiring into their physical and mental capacity as private lawsuits hit the courts. What this unfortunate blame-shifting maneuver leaves out is that in numerous cases young adults too have been unable to stop Toyota cars speeding down the road, out of control.