Yes it’s true that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) eventually “prodded” Toyota to stop manufacturing and selling eight car models with this problem, and the agency does not like anyone blaming them. And certainly, as the U.S. Supreme Court has said in the context of federally-regulated drugs, safety is the “ultimate responsibility” of the manufacturer “at all times.” But NHTSA is not innocent here, and of course, there was good reason to distrust that agency’s ability to protect us from unsafe cars, especially during the last Administration. The Times writes:
At almost every step that led to its current predicament, Toyota underestimated the severity of the sudden-acceleration problem affecting its most popular cars. It went from discounting early reports of problems to overconfidently announcing diagnoses and insufficient fixes.
As recently as the fall, Toyota was still saying it was confident that loose floor mats were the sole cause of any sudden acceleration, issuing an advisory to millions of Toyota owners to remove them. The company said on Nov. 2 that “there is no evidence to support” any other conclusion, and added that its claim was backed up by the federal traffic safety agency.
Six separate investigations were conducted by the agency into consumer complaints of unintended acceleration, and none of them found defects in Toyotas other than unsecured floor mats.
In at least three cases, the agency denied petitions for further investigative action because it did not see a pattern of defects and because of a “need to allocate and prioritize N.H.T.S.A.’s limited resources” elsewhere, according to agency documents.
In one federal inquiry on Toyota models built from 2002 to 2005, investigators found that 20 percent of the 432 complaints studied involved “sudden or unintended acceleration.”
But no defects were uncovered in any of the vehicles, and the rate of incidents was considered “unremarkable” in the context of the millions of cars on the road.
Our good friend Sean Kane, of Safety Research and Strategies, said NHTSA “did not push Toyota for more data, and too quickly accepted the company’s explanations about floor-mat problems.”
Some of the problems at NHTSA clearly were lack of resources. Wisconsin attorney Donald H. Slavik, of Milwaukee, said the agency “simply doesn’t have the resources to analyze the electronic systems of these cars.” (By the way, for anyone complaining about our “too big government” and wanting to cut back on the government’s resources and regulatory power, well this is what you get.)
We are now seeing litigation, some of which has been “in the works for five months,” and class actions “that “are expected to focus on why the government and the carmaker were unable to identify problems beyond the floor mats, despite mounting instances of runaway cars.” Again, with everyone pointing the finger, it’s going to take litigation to figure out what really happened here – as usual. And maybe we’ll learn why families like the Saylor’s had to die.