A system where safety comes last

February 15, 2010

Will congressional hearings get to the bottom of what's causing the deadly malfunctions in Toyota vehicles? Elizabeth Schulte reports on the scandal.

THE CONDEMNATIONS came fast and furious after Toyota announced a recall of millions of vehicles because of faulty gas pedals that caused them to accelerate suddenly out of drivers' control.

Within hours of the announcement, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood issued an admonishment, telling reporters, "My advice is, if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it." LaHood later said his statement was "obviously a misstatement" and suggested Toyota owners go to their dealers only if they noticed their pedals acting strangely.

Toyota clearly did everything it could to keep potentially deadly cars on the road before it made more than 2.3 million cars in eight models the focus of a recall. But LaHood and other U.S. officials who are paid to protect the safety of drivers have a lot of nerve pointing their fingers at Toyota alone.

There's plenty of blame to go around--and some should be reserved for the people who are supposed to be the watchdogs.

The Washington Post reported on February 9 that State Farm--the largest auto insurer in the U.S.--had warned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) about a rise in reports of unexpected acceleration in Toyotas as early as 2007.

Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda addresses a press conference
Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda addresses a press conference

The Post compared the recent warnings about Toyota to those State Farm made about accidents involving the Ford Explorer and Firestone tires.

In 2000, congressional investigators concluded that the NHTSA ignored the warnings about Explorers. This led to the creation of what was supposed to be an "early warning" system for similar problems. But as the current crisis for Toyota shows, the warning system only works if you heed the warning.

"If the question is, has NHTSA learned its lesson since then? I don't think it has," Joan Claybrook, the NHTSA administrator from 1977 to 1981, who testified at the Ford-Firestone hearings, told the Post.

Among Toyota's recent victims is Guadalupe Alberto, a former autoworker whose 2005 Toyota Camry accelerated out of control, jumped a curb and flew through the air before crashing into a tree, killing her instantly. The suspected cause of the April 2008 accident wasn't floor mats (a recall that began in November 2009) or sticky pedals (the target of this month's recall), but possibly a whole other problem--the electronic system that controls the throttle and engine speed.

While Toyota denies there is anything wrong with these systems, Alberto's family has filed a lawsuit in Genesee County, Mich., arguing that Toyota and its supplier Denso were negligent in manufacturing an electronic throttle system that caused her death. As the New York Times reported:

The case materials include a rare deposition from a Toyota executive about how the company and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration agreed to categorize different accidents when the agency investigated throttle control issues in 2004 on certain models.

For example, according to the deposition, the 2004 investigation excluded incidents of high-speed acceleration lasting several seconds from a larger universe of low-speed incidents of engine speed increasing briefly.

In his deposition--part of the public case file provided to the New York Times by the Albertos' lawyer--the Toyota executive, Christopher Santucci, said the company did not provide details of high-speed incidents because federal regulators had not requested them...

Mr. Santucci, who had previously worked for the safety agency, said the company had discussions with the agency about limiting the type of acceleration incidents to be investigated. "I recall them saying to us, Toyota, myself, that they were not interested in reports alleging uncontrolled acceleration that occurred for a long duration," Mr. Santucci testified.

Santucci concluded, "I think it worked out well for both the agency and Toyota, meaning Toyota provided what they were looking for." The NHTSA closed the investigation in a few months, without finding a defect.

THE HEART of the problem is that the NHTSA relies on the manufacturers themselves to come forward with information about defects or malfunctions. "It's a relationship "built on trust," Nicole Nason, the agency's administrator from 2006 to 2008, told the Post.

"Unfortunately, if the manufacturer says it's okay, then it's okay with them," Jeffery Pepski, a Minnesota driver who unsuccessfully petitioned the NHTSA with a complaint last year, told the Washington Post. "The agency follows that logic all the way through their investigations. They're not really investigating with an open mind."

What's more, it's not unheard of for former safety agency employees to use their expertise as watchdogs to benefit their new employers in the auto industry. Two top officials in Toyota's Washington office are former NHTSA employees.

The "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" attitude runs through Washington's dealings with the auto industry--as the congressional hearings on the Toyota crisis, set to begin February 24, show clearly.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which is supposed to review whether the NHTSA acted aggressively enough concerning Toyota, has known Toyota's founding family since the 1960s. It was his lobbying efforts that convinced the automaker to build a plant in his state.

Rockefeller was "so closely involved with Toyota's selection of Buffalo, W.Va., for a factory that he slogged through cornfields with Toyota executives scouting locations and still mentions his role in the 1990s deal to this day," reported the Associated Press. "'By the time Toyota decided to make Buffalo its new home,' Rockefeller said in 2006 during the plant's 10th anniversary, 'I felt like a full-fledged member of that site selection team.'"

The new NHTSA administrator, David Strickland, who was nominated by Barack Obama late last year, worked on Rockefeller's committee as a lawyer and senior staffer for eight years.

Toyota is an auto industry leader, thanks to its "lean production" methods and ruthless elimination of "waste"--in other words, keeping wages and benefits under control, and forcing workers to labor for long hours in dangerously understaffed conditions. The "Toyota Way" has become a model for other auto companies in the U.S.

The company's reaction to the fatal flaws in their vehicles shows that they have as little concern for their customers as they do their workers.

Nevertheless, while Toyota may be getting singled out today, other auto companies are playing the same games with people's lives. In 2000, it was Ford that was forced to admit the danger of Firestone tires on its Explorer SUVs. In 1995, Honda recalled 3.5 million cars with faulty and dangerous seatbelts. In 2008, Ford recalled 9.6 million vehicles due to an electrical fire hazard caused by malfunctioning cruise control switches.

And these are the cases in which the companies are caught in the act. Imagine the dangers that lurk below the surface.

Further Reading

From the archives