The spotlight on sudden-acceleration defects of Toyota vehicles has opened a window on lax enforcement by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the serious problems caused by deregulation over the last several decades.
As the fatality and injury toll climbs -- and Toyota sales plummet -- it's time to ask why the sleepy Washington safety sentinels at the Department of Transportation aren't doing the job the people expect of them.
Part of the problem is the deregulatory mania that has gripped Washington since the Ronald Reagan years. Since the Reagan administration, NHTSA has been severely cut back. Its budget has been nearly halved (when adjusted for inflation), which has left it with a far smaller technical staff.
Former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook has testified to the need for an immediate budget increase of $100 million just to assure that NHTSA has the technical personnel and capability to meet its obligations in the areas of safety standards, defect recall, enforcement and research.
At a time when about 40,000 Americans die in cars each year and hundreds of thousands more are injured, NHTSA's motor vehicle safety budget is a mere $140 million. By comparison, taxpayers will pay more than four times as much -- about $675 million -- to guard the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
A better-funded agency, empowered to assume a more aggressive watchdog role, might have responded far more quickly to the troubles at Toyota. Toyota introduced electronic throttle controls in 2002 on certain Camry and Lexus models, and since that time consumer complaints to NHTSA about sudden acceleration have quadrupled for these models. But in response to formal defect petitions, NHTSA opened and closed several investigations without action.
To this day, the agency has not issued testing protocols by which to judge Toyota's performance, nor has it proposed safety standards for electronic throttles or brake overrides. Not until January did NHTSA even demand that the automaker supply the technical information it needs to conduct a comprehensive analysis.
Given the lax regulation, it is not surprising that Toyota responded to the 7-year-old sudden-acceleration problem by first blaming driver error, then by claiming floor mat interference, then by admitting that many of the 2.3 million recalled Toyotas in the United States had a gas pedal prone to sticking. But for the fact that an August 2009 San Diego crash was caught on a 911 tape, there probably would never have been a recall.
That crash -- which killed an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and his three passengers -- would have been, like so many others, attributed to driver error and swept under the carpet.
The decrease in oversight comes at a time when the engineering of vehicles is becoming ever more complex. Today, NHTSA still has not a single expert in electronic automotive systems, yet drivers are increasingly losing control of their cars to these systems.
Today's cars have been described as computers on wheels. Many microprocessors serve numerous functions, including acceleration performance. Their rapidly burgeoning complexities year after year are not under rigorous public regulatory standards. And auto companies closely guard these technological trade secrets.
This situation impedes open technical conferences to discuss safety problems and the best available remedies and research needs.
The cloistered industry mentality is increasingly being viewed by motorists, in the wake of the Toyota scandal, as scary arrogance that must end.
Sudden acceleration is an old problem with auto companies. General Motors was required by an earlier, more vibrant NHTSA to recall 6.7 million cars in 1971 because of defective engine mounts. Toyota had to recall vehicles for sudden acceleration in 1986. Other car companies had sticking throttle defects.
Rebuilding NHTSA to a level of technical and regulatory capability is also essential for motorists' safety on the highways. Yet President Obama actually recommended cutting NHTSA's motor vehicle safety budget next year by $8 million.
He needs to do an about-face and instead call for strengthening this essential agency with both resources and political support for its mission. We need new standards, enforced with a threat of criminal penalties. And we need an agency capable of conducting crucial research and testing.
Historically, when the United States has upgraded vehicle safety, other nations followed. When the U.S. deregulates, other nations often snooze as well. Preventable road casualties spread. Product liability lawsuits increase to force evidence and compensation out of the auto companies for the benefit of the victims or the next of kin.
Toyota needs to settle its top management transition, gain control of its once-fabled quality control, review its entire electronic engine systems and jettison its culture of secrecy and manipulation of public safety agencies.
Other auto companies, similarly steeped in a deepening electronic programming of vehicles, must also take notice of Toyota's problems. In that way, perhaps they can prevent problems before they arise.
In 1965-66, when I was working to pass the legislation that established NHTSA, it was clear that permanent vigilance by the motoring public would be needed to counteract the forthcoming surge of industry lobbyists on the backs of the agency and Congress.
NHTSA's actions in its early years served to save lives and prevent injuries. Cars are much safer today. The fatality toll per 100 million vehicle miles is only one- quarter of what it was in 1965. But technological failures still occur. When motorists experience them, they should call NHTSA's toll-free number, 888-327-4236. They should post complaints at the Center for Auto Safety's website, autosafety.org. And they should let their elected officials know that safety must be a priority.
Ralph Nader, the consumer activist, first brought attention to car safety in the U.S. in his seminal 1965 book, "Unsafe at Any Speed."