02.01.10

Blame Obama for Toyota’s Car Troubles

Auto recalls will continue until the new administration stops acting like its predecessors and gets serious about safety, in the form of a stronger regulatory agency.

Why is this Toyota recall a surprise? Their first recall for sticking gas pedals was in 1986. That's how long they've known about this problem. It's a continuing issue and a continuing cover-up, with a consistent enabler: a very weak National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The NHTSA has opened six investigations in the last two years and closed them without ordering a recall. Toyota's still remains voluntary, though the agency urged them to recall and shut down the production line. This puts NHTSA and the Obama administration on the spot—it took them a year to find an administrator, David Strickland, who just took office. That delay shows the kind of priority they're giving to auto safety. If you don't have a permanent director of a regulatory agency in place you won't be able to exercise the full lifesaving regulatory powers of the federal government.

The contempt that Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama have given to the NHTSA has resulted in a frightened, weak, regulatory agency that has become a mere consulting firm to Detroit.

For instance, the NHTSA has the toughest subpoena authority of probably any regulatory agency in Washington and has had it for years. But while this interaction on sticking pedals has been going on for several years between the NHTSA and Toyota, they haven't subpoenaed Toyota, the dealers, the suppliers, in Japan or the United States.

Instead, they've coddled Toyota, which has not been upfront until recently. Now they know that by delaying action the results have been disastrous for motorists and for company profits alike when Toyota finally owned up to the full scale of their problems. It's now the biggest recall in the company's history.

This is going to put the deficiencies of the NHTSA and its understaffed, under-budgeted mission in the congressional spotlight and the media spotlight. The contempt that Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama have given to the NHTSA has resulted in a frightened, weak, regulatory agency that has become a mere consulting firm to Detroit, and whose budget in real terms is half of what it was in 1980, and with more vehicles on the road.

What must come out of this whole Toyota debacle is a stronger, better-budgeted NHTSA. Currently, the entire annual budget of the NHTSA, which includes motor vehicle, highway and driver safety and includes grants to the states, is less than the annual budget of the federal government to guard the embassy in Baghdad. While hundreds of thousands are killed and injured in the United States, we're spending more on some huge embassy that's the result of a criminal war of aggression by Bush and Cheney.

The sticking pedal problem is a common one for automotive manufacturers—it's bizarre how often it reoccurs. There's nothing more terrifying in terms of car problems than brake failure or a sticking gas pedal. Toyota has initiated this huge recall, but they say the problem is partly due to the floor mat and partly mechanical and deny its electronic cause, while increasingly experts in the field are saying it’s also electronic. In their previous recall, they used the floor mat as the reason, which was a ruse. Now they have to say they problem is mechanical—in their press release they defiantly say it's not electronic—but I think they may have to eat some of their words.

We'll find out more soon thanks to a number of class action and individual lawsuits. In addition to those already under way, more accidents will be reported not as potential drunk drivers but increasingly as possible Toyota defects, which will highlight the issue more. It's similar to what happened with the Ford Firestone recall: Once it became known as a defect, crashes previously explained as ordinary began to be viewed as unique to that model. That just raised the heat on the companies and fed the cycle: the more media, the more revelation, the more complaints, more lawsuits, more revelation, and eventually enough pressure on the companies and suppliers to force them to fully own up.

The other problem is how many people bring their car back. Usually not more than 50 percent  or 60 percent of vehicles get returned, sometimes 40 percent or less when it's a defect people don’t think is serious. This will get a higher rate of return than usual but there will still be some that are not returned and potentially dangerous on the highway.

However, a lot of good can come out of this tragedy. It could be like the thalidomide scandal in 1962, in which a common sedative taken by pregnant mothers in Europe was found to produce flippers for arms and legs in their children. The result was a stronger FDA afterward and FDA physician, Frances Kelsey, blew the whistle before the sedative came to America. But finding the positive in the aftermath of these disasters is not automatic and the press is crucial: In the end, they push the Congress, push the auto companies, push the federal regulators. They have to stay consistently on top of it.

Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate and frequent presidential candidate, wrote Unsafe at Any Speed.