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Opinion: Government Also to Blame for Toyota Mess

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Opinion: Government Also to Blame for Toyota Mess

(Feb. 4) – How can Toyota – the "gold standard" for reliability and quality control – have gotten itself in this massive recall mess for sudden acceleration hazards, crashes and casualties?

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader's latest book is "Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!"

Of course, Toyota deserves much of the blame. Its push to overtake General Motors as the world's largest vehicle manufacturer coupled with complacency at the top resulted in the company losing control over its quality control. With transitions at top management and an increasing complexity of vehicle electronics, including the electric throttle, management failure came at the most inopportune time.

But an important contributor to this problem is the derelict performance of our federal regulatory auto safety agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Weakened since President Reagan and all the way through Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, NHTSA has been depleted of engineering staff, losing budget and White House support while auto industry lobbyists swarmed daily through its corridors.

Since 1980, NHTSA has lost almost half its budget, inflation-adjusted, and has nearly 200 fewer staff in its critical motor vehicle and highway safety standards and enforcement section. At the same time, vehicles have become more numerous on the roads and more complex in their electronics. Cars can be described as computers with steering wheels and four tires, resulting in less immediate driver control.

NHTSA has conducted at least six investigations into Toyota's gas pedal problem in the past several years and closed them with no actions. The agency has refused to subpoena any tests and other information from the company. Nor has the safety agency issued a testing protocol to guide its evaluation of Toyota's claims. And, not surprisingly, although sticking gas pedals and sudden acceleration problems have been associated with numerous manufacturers over the past four decades (GM's massive 1971 recall of 6.1 million cars comes to mind, along with Toyota's 1986 recall), NHTSA has never issued a mandatory safety standard for gas pedals.

Of course, NHTSA follows orders from the White House and industry servants like the powerful Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who put the brakes on the agency's overall modest initiatives again and again.


Another View

Toyota's problems are serious, but if the federal government wants to really improve highway safety, it should focus on driver distraction and other unsafe driving practices, says traffic safety expert Leonard Evans.


What must be done now? Toyota must come clean – and fast. It still denies any "electronics problem," even though, finally, NHTSA, at the urging of engineering specialists and the Center for Auto Safety, has opened an investigation of the likely cause of sudden acceleration mishaps. The electronic throttle could have software glitches, manufacturing defects or the dreaded outside electromagnetic interference. The public doesn't know, but two congressional hearings starting next week will be demanding answers.

Last November, Toyota would only own up to the floor mat entrapment as the cause of the vehicles lunging forward. More recently, it admitted a mechanical problem and is sending kits to its dealers. The level of urgency at the company, prodded by NHTSA, class-action lawsuits and media vigilance, is likely to go up. Let's hope President Obama stops cutting NHTSA's budget and upgrades auto safety's priority in his administration.

As for the Toyota owners under recall, any experience with sudden acceleration and/or sticky gas pedals should be called into NHTSA at the toll-free hot line number, 888-327-4236.

Your complaints matter greatly in this emergency.

And if you see your car lunge, go right to your Toyota dealer for the company's fix. Don't wait for your certified letter to arrive in a week or two from the company for an appointment. Be mentally prepared so that in case of this sudden surge, you put your car in neutral and squeeze on your brakes.

More information will be coming out and more action commenced to allay your anxieties. Stay tuned.



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