Special Coverage

Toyota's Safety Crisis

Under aggressive questioning by politicians, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood vigorously defends the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.’s record of investigating vehicle safety.

“We have not been sitting on our hands,” he says of the agency he oversees regarding Toyota Motor Corp.’s numerous safety recalls.

LaHood makes his remarks under intense grilling by members of a House Oversight Committee at a hearing in Washington today. Several lawmakers scold LaHood for NHTSA’s failure to respond sooner to reports of sudden acceleration incidents, leading to several deaths.

TMC President Akio Toyoda, grandson of the company’s founder, is testifying at the hearing this afternoon.

Dennis Kucinich, D-OH, asks of NHTSA has enough technology experts who can analyze vehicle software to determine whether Toyota’s electronic throttle control system could be causing some of the sudden acceleration incidents, as some drivers allege.

“Yes sir, we do,” LaHood says, noting NHSTA employs 125 engineers, some of whom have electrical expertise. He repeats an oft-heard phrase during the hearing that his agency intends to “get in the weeds” to discover whether electronics are at fault.

NHTSA also will add 66 new staff positions, which LaHood says should get the agency “about where we need to be” to investigate safety complaints in a timely manner. NHTSA fields 30,000 complaints about vehicles annually, he adds.

Rep. Mark Souder, D-IN, who tells LaHood he appreciates his “feistiness” in answering questions and whose district includes a General Motors Co. plant in Ft. Wayne, expresses concern the situation with Toyota could cause other auto makers to be less forthcoming about safety issues, given the amount of “smearing” in the media Toyota has suffered.

LaHood disagrees, saying the fallout from the Toyota recalls would lead auto makers to become even more sensitive to safety issues, making them their No.1 priority.

LaHood is testifying before the committee in place of NHTSA chief David Strickland, who has been on the job for only 40 days. Strickland was asked to attend the hearing and answer questions.

Strickland’s expertise might have come in handy during one line of questioning by Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-DC, who asks LaHood whether there should be federal regulations for automotive black-box data.

LaHood agrees such regulations should be in place, but apparently fails to say NHTSA already has mandated the move by September 2012.

Norton takes issue with the fact Toyota’s black boxes can be read only by the auto maker, using a proprietary tool.

Toyota last week said it would begin to use black-box data for accident reconstruction. Spokesman Paul Nolasco was unable to tell Ward’s when this will begin and whether Toyota will make its tool commercially available before September 2012.

“That is what I mean by the culture of secrecy,” Norton says, after getting affirmation from LaHood that GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC all have black boxes whose data can be retrieved using a commercially available tool.

LaHood says NHTSA has 7,600 EDR crash-data files for the Detroit Three auto makers.

Norton also asks LaHood to agree that brake-override technology, which disables the throttle if vehicle brakes are applied, should be mandated for every vehicle sold in the U.S. Some auto makers, mostly European, have implemented the technology. Toyota until recently had not.

“I’d rather base that kind of a judgment on good research and a number of things,” LaHood tells Norton. “I can’t render a judgment on that at the moment.”

Several committee members ask LaHood if he considers Toyotas safe to drive. After hemming a bit, LaHood makes clear vehicles recalled by Toyota for sticky accelerator pedals and pedals that can become entrapped in floor mats are unsafe to drive.

He urges Americans who own a recalled model to take it to an authorized Toyota dealer immediately for repair.

But LaHood fumes at later questioning, when NHTSA is accused of being a lap dog to the auto industry, rather than a public watchdog. “I’m not a lap dog,” he bellows, “and none of our employees are either.”

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com