Better World Club

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Unsafe at Any Unintended Speed

Washington Needs to Re-Evaluate the Relationship Between Automakers and the NHTSA

Do We Need a New Nader?

On March 5, a Congressional panel investigating the safety recall of millions of Toyota vehicles over problems with unexpected acceleration requested that Toyota submit more convincing documents to prove that electronics systems were not the source of acceleration problems. Toyota executives had appeared at Congressional hearings during the last week of February and testified that its recalls had effectively addressed the problem of unintended acceleration and that no flaws had been found with its electronic controls.

By March 4, however, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had received at least 60 complaints of unintended acceleration in vehicles that had supposedly undergone the Toyota fix. NHTSA officials were also scrutinized by Congress for their ability to properly assess the effectiveness of Toyota's recall measures.

Both Toyota and consumers should benefit from a quick resolution of Toyota's current safety problems. And, we can only hope that Toyota will be as transparent and cooperative with officials as is necessary to identify the root of its recall problem. But, the back and forth between Congress, Toyota, and the NHTSA over whether Toyota's safety issues stem from a mechanical failure or an electric one calls into question the effectiveness of the very relationship between automakers and safety regulators.

Automobile technology has improved drastically since the establishment of the NHTSA under the Highway Safety Act in 1970. And though NHTSA investigations have undoubtedly saved many lives in the time since then, it's not unreasonable to question whether the interplay between manufacturers and safety regulators has become outdated or, even worse, cozy. It shouldn't be surprising that, after 40 years, a regulatory entity like the NHTSA would develop relationships and techniques that prioritize expedience and efficiency (not necessarily over safety, but nonetheless). And perhaps that's the lesson we should learn from the recent Toyota recall.

Complicated computer systems demand that we have knowledgable and sophisticated inspectors to insist on their dependability and test their performance as it pertains to consumer safety. It's quite possible that technology has outpaced the ability of our regulators to regulate it.

At a recent hearing, Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia wondered whether "NHTSA investigators would rather focus on floor mats than microchips because they understand floor mats," as was reported in The New York Times on March 2. Now that it's known that in 2009 Toyota chalked up a win for itself after saving $100 million through a limited recall involving only floor mats, Senator Rockefeller's musings seem not very far off mark.

At a time when we're looking more and more to new forms of technology to help us address pollution and climate change -- and when brands like Toyota are staking their market shares on the introduction of those new technologies -- it's only right that we re-evaluate our regulatory infrastructure to make sure it's able to cope.

Strangely, no one individual or non-governmental organization has yet made it its mission to address this emerging problem. Where's Ralph Nader when we need him? Maybe he really is convinced that only the super rich can save us. Or maybe the whole Toyota thing will be just the impetus we needed to call a new champion from the wings. We've got our hands full here at the BWC offices, but we'll give a free renewal to the next of our members we see testifying at a Congressional hearing.

Short of that, if you have a Toyota acceleration story to tell, please share it with our other Kicking Asphalt readers.

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