10 February 2010

When Did the Toyota Problem Start?

Both my parents drive Toyotas, so I’ve kept track of news of the recent recalls. I did some editing on Eric Lichtblau and Bill Vlasic’s New York Times article “Safety Agency Scrutinized as Toyota Recall Grows”, about how the federal government dealt with reports of problems with Toyota vehicles before last year.

Not once in more than six years of reviews of Toyota’s problems [under the Bush-Cheney administration, and before the Obama administration got an administrator approved in December] did officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates automakers, use their power to subpoena Toyota’s records, even though they said they believed the automaker was withholding critical information.

Now, with the recalls of some eight million Toyota vehicles since late last year, including more than 400,000 models of the 2010 Prius and other hybrid models this week, the traffic safety agency promises to be scrutinized as much as Toyota itself. Members of Congress, independent experts on auto experts and others say they want to know why the agency did not act more aggressively in investigating Toyota’s problems [under the Bush-Cheney administration]. . . .

Some Congressional officials and outside experts say they believe the safety agency has become too close to the industry it is charged with regulating [under the Bush-Cheney administration], as a number of agency employees have gone to work for Toyota [such as Christopher Santucci, appointed in the first year of the Bush-Cheney administration]. Among other issues that need to be addressed, they also cite the agency’s limited use of fines or subpoenas against auto manufacturers [during the Bush-Cheney administration], a dearth of technical expertise in areas like electronic throttle problems and frequent turnover in its leadership [under the Bush-Cheney administration]. . . .

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has the most active defect investigation program in the world,” Mr. LaHood said on Tuesday in a statement to The New York Times. “Its safety experts are dedicated to finding and fixing safety problems, and they review 30,000 consumer complaints every year. Over just the last three years [once Democrats took over Congress], N.H.T.S.A.’s investigations have resulted in 524 recalls involving 23.5 million vehicles — a stellar record.”

But internal agency documents and interviews with auto safety experts demonstrate that the safety agency and the auto giant it regulated engaged in a Kabuki dance of sorts in the months and years [of the Bush-Cheney administration] before tensions coalesced. Drivers would file complaints by the dozens about mysterious accelerations and other hazards, federal regulators would open official reviews, Toyota would promise answers, the regulators would complain about not receiving the information they needed, and in the end, almost nothing would come of any of it [under the Bush-Cheney administration].

Six times since 2003 in fact, the safety agency opened inquiries into possible Toyota safety problems, and six times it closed them without any significant action [by the Bush-Cheney administration].

In 2008 [the last year of the Bush-Cheney administration], for instance, the agency examined a request from the owner of a Toyota Tacoma pickup to investigate “sudden and uncontrolled acceleration.” After a preliminary review, the safety agency concluded in a memorandum given to House investigators that: “In view of the need to allocate and prioritize N.H.T.S.A.’s limited resources to best accomplish the agency’s safety mission, the petition is denied.”

In recent years [under the Bush-Cheney administration], the agency has dealt with financing and staff cuts in some areas. The [Obama administration’s] Transportation Department announced last week that the administration was seeking money for 66 new positions.

The agency also has had a revolving door of leaders [under the Bush-Cheney administration], with about a half-dozen directors since 2005. The current administrator, David Strickland, was confirmed only in December. . . .

Even though the agency was not getting all the information it wanted from Japan, it did receive data about possible defects from State Farm, the insurance firm, beginning in 2007 [under the Bush-Cheney administration]. . . .
Late last year the Los Angeles Times reported, “In the last fiscal year [i.e., the last budget submitted by the Bush-Cheney administration], Congress authorized less than half of the inflation-adjusted $39 million it had in 2001 for NHTSA’s enforcement activities,” before the Bush-Cheney administration.

Nicole Nason, appointed head of the agency in 2007 by the Bush-Cheney administration, told the LA Times, “It is hard to tell what we would have done in the two years I was there if we had more money.” Yes, if an administration is determined not to do anything that the industry dislikes, it can do that very cheaply.

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