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NHTSA head didn't expect to spend so much time on Toyota issues

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NHTSA head didn't expect to spend so much time on Toyota issues

David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington -- David Strickland, a Prius owner and self-described policy wonk, never thought the biggest issue of his tenure at the nation's top auto safety regulator would be Toyota Motor Corp.'s safety record.

But now he's working to make recommendations to improve the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's recall procedures as he defends the agency's handling of eight separate investigations into sudden acceleration incidents at Toyota since 2003.

Strickland, who was sworn in as NHTSA administrator on Jan. 4, initially thought the agency's finalizing of landmark fuel economy and tailpipe emissions regulations by April 1 with the Environmental Protection Agency would get most of the attention.

Strickland soon learned how Toyota would take more of his time. Now he will be flying to Japan in mid-May with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to meet with Toyota officials.

"I knew stuff for Toyota was going to be prevalent," he said, "but I had no idea."

Strickland said he isn't going to let preconceptions influence the agency's probe of Toyota safety issues. NHTSA must keep an open mind whether electronics are playing a role in Toyota's sudden acceleration incidents, he said, and conduct its investigation in a "purely scientific" way.

Foreign automakers are typically slower to respond on safety issues than U.S. automakers in part because the Detroit automakers' headquarters are closer, he said.

"Toyota was so far beyond being the slowest and the most difficult that to make the staff go over there indicated the level of their lack of comfort and their anger frankly about what was going on with them," Strickland said.

In a recent interview, Strickland laid out his plans for the agency, which he contends doesn't require a major overhaul.

"I know a broken agency when I see one," said Strickland, a former lead U.S. Senate committee staff person on fuel economy rules and NHTSA oversight. "If I came in as administrator and I felt that NHTSA had those types of serious systemic problems, I would have been incredibly honest with everyone."

He said he wants to simplify the agency's cumbersome recall form. NHTSA gets about 30,000 complaints a year.

He also wants to speed up NHTSA's recall investigations.

"It can be faster. It should be faster," he says.

The longer the agency and automakers fight about a problem, Strickland said, the longer drivers are exposed to safety risks.

"But there is a due process right of automakers. We can't simply say 'You're guilty until proven innocent.' "

All the agency expects, he said, is for automakers to tell the truth.

"You will have no issues with NHTSA if you disclose timely and in a thorough fashion. We will be fair," he said. "That's the only thing I can ask."

Strickland noted that the agency has crash-tested about 85 percent of the 2010 model vehicles by volume for its five-star New Car Assessment Program.

NHTSA is rolling out a revamped program for 2011 that will give some automakers lower scores and will account for about 72 percent of 2011 models. It will take a few years to get back to the mid-80 percent range, he said.

The Lexus GX 460, which Toyota recalled Monday, was one of the small-volume models that NHTSA hadn't tested.

"If we tested every car in the United States, we would crash Ferraris and Maseratis," Strickland said. "A low-volume car that's worth $250,000 may not be the best use of our resources."

The top auto safety regulator noted all of Detroit's Big Three automakers had major auto safety problems over the decades, pointing to the Corvair, Pinto and Chrysler minivan latches as examples.

"All of these things, once they were brought to light in the court of public opinion, punished those companies," Strickland said.

From The Detroit News: http://www.detnews.com/article/20100420/AUTO01/4200325/1148/NHTSA-head-didn-t-expect-to-spend-so-much-time-on-Toyota-issues#ixzz0ldzLDgLf

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