Sitting down to hear Rhonda Smith tell of the unintended acceleration of her Toyota-made Lexus vehicle that left her car out of control and certain she would die, the powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee made clear that new legislation will be required.
Meanwhile, one of the nation’s best-known consumer groups provided some legislative grist in the form of recommendations to reform U.S. car safety regulation.
A House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee met Tuesday to probe the response of the Toyota Motor Corp., and the the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to incidents of sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles that sent cars speeding out of control, to speeds of 100 miles per hour.
Among the witnesses at the hearing was Smith, of Sevierville, Tenn. The grandmother was driving her new Lexus 350 ES in 2006 when she experienced unintended acceleration.
“The last time I looked at the speedometer it read 100 mph. At this time, I had the emergency brake on while frantically shifting between ALL the gears (besides park) but mainly had it in REVERSE and with the emergency brake on,” Smith says in her written prepared testimony. “I finally figured the car was going to go to its maximum speed and was praying to God to please help me. After about 3 miles had passed, I thought it was my time to die …”
Smith called her husband on her Bluetooth device.
“I knew he couldn’t help me in this particular situation, but I just needed to hear his voice,” she says. At almost exactly six miles, the car began to slow down ever so slowly. “It slowed enough for me to pull to the left median, with the motor still revving up and down. At 35 mph it would not shut off. Finally, at 33 mph I was able to turn the engine off,” she says.
In preparation for Tuesday’s hearing, the subcommittee staff analyzed more than 100,000 pages of documents from Toyota and NHTSA, according to committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). These documents show that Toyota and NHTSA have received thousands of complaints of runaway Toyota vehicles. And they show that these complaints increased after the introduction of electronic throttle controls, Waxman adds.
Part of the Department of Transportation, NHTSA directs highway safety and consumer programs.
Waxman says that the committee’s review indicates that Toyota received as many as 2,600 complaints of runaway vehicles through its telephone hotline alone — more than 700 of these incidents resulting in accidents.
Waxman says “fundamental reform” is needed at NHTSA.
“The agency lacked the expertise and resources to critically assess Toyota’s insistence that its vehicles could not fail,” he says.
“Ultimately, I believe addressing this problem will require legislation. Carmakers have entered the electronics era, but NHTSA seems stuck in a mechanical mindset,” Waxman says. “We need to make sure the federal safety agency has the tools and resources it needs to ensure the safety of the electronic controls and on-board computers that run today’s automobiles.”
Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of the well-known magazine Consumer Reports, agrees the government must do more, including specific reforms at NHTSA. Separately from the hearing, Consumers Union released its set of recommendations.
“Every generation of safety innovation that Consumers Union has promoted — from seatbelts, to airbags to electronic stability control — has required the coordinated commitment of carmakers, the government and consumers,” says Consumer Union President Jim Guest. “Our nation’s drivers, passengers and consumers at large deserve an even stronger car safety net.”
Why are issues like unintended acceleration so hard to identify? Car problems reported to dealers, automakers, and government agencies every day create a level of “noise” that can make it difficult to identify real trends and rare problems, according to Consumers Union. Many complaints are about isolated incidents, which may be due to driver error, vehicle abuse, lack of maintenance, or variability on the assembly line.
NHTSA receives more than 30,000 complaints a year; and only about 2,000 in the last decade were related to acceleration issues with Toyota models. So, the key is to identify, as early as possible, when a series of problems points to a trend, and to a real and possibly lethal defect in a part or design, Consumers Union says.
Public access to information within the NHTSA Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) about consumer complaints and issues-related manufacturer data should be dramatically improved, the organization says. Consumers shouldn’t have to visit multiple sites to see parts of this information, it says. Or be forced to search it using tools that are less than user-friendly. Complaints information should be visible via a single consumer-facing site, with intuitive tools that allow users to easily find information for particular models and compare vehicle safety records, Consumers Union recommends.It also recommends that NHTSA initiate a program to raise public awareness and encourage more drivers to participate in data gathering. The more public complaints there are to analyze, the greater the chance that rare-but-deadly problems such as unintended acceleration will be identified at any early stage, Consumers Union says.
It believes NHTSA is in need of additional funding and staff. Motor-vehicle crashes account for 99 percent of all transportation-related fatalities and injuries. Yet NHTSA’s budget currently amounts to just 1 over percent of the overall DOT budget, the organization says.
It is important to make sure that the agency’s budget and staffing for auto safety and consumer protection functions is commensurate with the realities of traffic safety and can keep up with the agency’s other priorities, it adds.
The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.