Toyota Debacle Puts NHTSA In Spotlight

Toyota has been under fire recently for what some have termed a slow response to safety problems that have resulted in the recall of millions of vehicles around the world. As the recalls have mounted, some have also begun to question what role regulators have played in the Toyota debacle. Most of those questions involve the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and its relationship to the automaker.

As of January 2010, Toyota has recalled more than 5 million vehicles in the U.S. for problems with sudden acceleration. Crashes involving Toyota or Lexus vehicles and sudden acceleration have allegedly resulted in 19 deaths between 2004 and 2009.

According to a Reuters report published over the weekend, at least two former NHTSA regulators now work at Toyota. What’s more, these individuals may have helped bring to an end four separate NHTSA investigations into Toyota vehicles and unintended acceleration.

According to Reuters, Christopher Tinto, vice president of regulatory affairs in Toyota’s Washington office, joined the automaker in 1994, right after leaving the NHTSA. Christopher Santucci – who now works for Tinto – did the same in 2003.

From 2003 to 2009 the NHTSA opened eight investigations of sudden acceleration involving Toyotas. Of those, three resulted in floor mat recalls and five were closed. Tinto and Santucci worked with NHTSA on Toyota’s responses to the consumer complaints, according to court papers and other documents reviewed by Reuters.

The first involved unanticipated acceleration by 2002 and 2003 Toyotas Camrys and Solara, and a lawsuit filed on behalf of a Michigan woman who was killed in an April 2008 accident. The lawsuit blamed a defect in the electronic throttle control for the fatal accident. According to Reuters, Santucci testified in a deposition for that lawsuit that Toyota and the NHTSA discussed limiting an investigation of unintended acceleration complaints to incidents lasting less than a second.

Twenty days after starting its probe – and after talking with Tinto – the NHTSA decided not to investigate “longer duration incidents involving uncontrollable acceleration where brake pedal application allegedly had no effect,” according to documents obtained by Reuters. The decision was supposedly made to limit the cases to eliminate instances in which a driver may have used the wrong pedal.

The second NHTSA investigation, which occurred in 2005, was prompted by a consumer complaint of two instances of sudden acceleration in a 2002 Camry, one of which involved a crash. The vehicle owner who filed the petition with the NHTSA also cited eight complaints from other drivers about similar episodes with other Toyota vehicles. According to Reuters, Toyota itself said dealer representatives investigated 59 of 100 vehicles whose owners complained.

In November of that year, Tinto wrote to the NHTSA that no evidence of a system or component failure was found and the vehicles were operating as designed. According to Reuters, the NHTSA ended that probe in January 2006, citing lack of evidence of a problem and the agency’s need to allocate “limited resources” to other investigations.

The third case, which started with a consumer complaint made in August 2006, again involved the Camry, model years 2002 to 2006. The Camry owner who made the complaint to the NHTSA blamed the throttle actuator or controller. According to Reuters, the NHTSA also noted 3,546 cases where Toyota had replaced throttle actuators under warranty terms. But Tinto wrote to the agency that Toyota had not found a defect with the throttle actuator, but did find evidence that returned actuators had corroded due to water intrusion. According to Tinto, intrusion was usually caused by drivers going through a flooded road or similar circumstances. The NHTSA decided not to pursue the probe, saying it was “not warranted”.

The final investigation, in 2008, involved 2006-2007 Toyota Tacoma pickup trucks. According to Reuters, the consumer who made the initial complaint reported two incidents of unintended acceleration in his 2006 Tacoma and pointed to 32 similar complaints in the NHTSA database. A memo from Tinto also said that Toyota had received similar complaints involving more than 400 Tacomas, model years 2004 to 2009. Of those reports, 49 involved crashes.

According to Reuters, Tinto wrote after a review that he felt the complaints didn’t warrant an NHTSA investigation and said media attention to the issue played a role in the complaints. The NHTSA closed that investigation in August 2008, saying it was unable to find any underlying cause for the issue.

According to Reuters, the relationship between Tinto and Santucci and the NHTSA is unique. Spokesmen for General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC and Honda Motor Co. all told Reuters that they have no ex-NHTSA people who deal with the agency on defects.

Obviously, this issue brings up serious conflict-of-interest questions that need to be answered. Fortunately, officials from Toyota and the NHTSA will have a chance to answer those questions. According to Reuters, three congressional committees – House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee – have hearings on the Toyota recalls scheduled in the next few weeks. Officials from Toyota and the NHTSA have been asked to testify at all of them.

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