Our view on auto safety: Why did NHTSA fail to nail Toyota’s problems?

Watchdog agency had evidence, but it didn’t connect the dots.
Another day, another Toyota investigation.
Today, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration plans to begin a formal probe into complaints about power steering in 2009-10 Corollas. This comes on top of inquiries into brakes on the Prius and unintended acceleration problems with several popular models.
Toyota drivers will surely welcome the sudden burst of aggressive oversight. But they should also be wondering why the government's auto-safety watchdog took so long to get into overdrive, particularly as evidence mounted about the deadly throttle problem.
The reasons aren't entirely clear, but there are at least three possible explanations:
Incompetence. Like intelligence agencies that failed to connect the dots before terror attacks, NHTSA missed obvious evidence. It got 2,600 complaints about Toyota's runaway cars but didn't look deeply enough to find an answer.
Since 2003, the agency has started eight investigations, but closed six without finding a defect. In other cases, it ignored incidents that should have raised suspicions. When a Massachusetts man asked in 2003 for a probe of Lexus sedans, citing 271 such complaints, the agency rejected it without asking Toyota for data.
Attitude. For much of the past decade, the Bush administration fostered a get-government-off-the-back-of-business attitude. Industry-friendly regulators staffed key agencies; lobbyists had their ear. This anti-regulatory approach manifested itself in the financial crisis and a deterioration of safety in foods, toys and mining.
The degree to which this attitude might have infected NHTSA is uncertain. But there is evidence that the Bush administration quietly undercut efforts to force NHTSA to issue stricter safety standards faster. In 2005, for example, the White House opposed a measure to set deadlines for long-overdue regulations to prevent deaths from rollovers, even as more than 10,000 people were dying each year in such crashes.
Resources. When people die, as they have in runaway Toyotas and as they did a decade ago when faulty Firestone tires sent Ford Explorers into rollovers, Congress is outraged. But in between scandals, NHTSA has been at best ignored and at worst deprived of money and personnel.
Since 1980, NHTSA's staff has dropped 28%, from 874 to 632. Of those, fewer than 10% work on safety and defect investigations.
Last year, Congress dumped a massive and rushed task on the small agency: Design and run the newly created "cash for clunkers" program — which had nothing to do with the agency's core mission of ensuring that the 230 million vehicles on the road in the USA are safe and reducing the 40,000 annual deaths on the nation's highways.
This doesn't automatically mean the answer to NHTSA's problems is more money and staff. As private industry has done during the recession, regulatory agencies need to set priorities, work smarter and learn to do more with less.
It's heartening to see NHTSA opening probe after probe and staying on Toyota's case, but the speed and number of investigations make you wonder even more where the agency has been all these years.
When Congress opens hearings next week into the Toyota mess, it should look not just at the company but also at the watchdog that didn't bark.

Posted at 12:22 AM/ET, February 18, 2010 in USA TODAY editorial 

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