Rebuffing criticism of slow action and underfunded efforts, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said his agency acted properly in investigating complaints about sudden-acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles and has enough money and staff to oversee the auto industry.
At a House subcommittee hearing Thursday, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland also denied that agency employees were beholden to the automakers they regulate.
"This agency opened eight separate investigations over the time period when there were complaints about sudden acceleration. A lap dog doesn't open eight investigations," Strickland told the panel.
Many of those investigations since 2002 were closed without any recalls by Toyota because there wasn't enough information to warrant one, but the agency continued to monitor the issue as it has with other safety problems, he said.
"If we cannot find the defect, we cannot under the statute go forward and force a mandatory recall, but that doesn't mean that we think the vehicle is safe, per se. We will keep looking," said Strickland, who became the agency's head in January after working as a Senate aide on auto safety issues.
The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee is looking at the agency's ability to oversee automakers' response to the discovery of safety defects.
Critics have complained that NHTSA failed to identify the sudden-acceleration problems early enough. Those problems have been blamed in the deaths of at least 56 people in accidents involving Toyota vehicles in the United States, and the company has issued about 10 million recall notices worldwide recently for sudden-acceleration, braking and other problems.
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) on Thursday called NHTSA's response to Toyota drivers' complaints about runaway acceleration "sluggish." NHTSA did not use all the power it had to investigate the problems and force a recall, apparently because of "ineptitude and lack of resources," he said.
Asked directly by Dingell whether he believed NHTSA had made mistakes in handling the Toyota problems, Strickland said, "No, sir, I do not."
"I don't see Toyota as an indicative example of failure. I see it as NHTSA doing its job," Strickland said, calling the huge recalls that NHTSA pressed Toyota to issue as "the type of response I'd want to see."
Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), chairman of the subcommittee, said NHTSA needed to "regain America's confidence." He noted the annual budget for the agency's office that investigates vehicle defects has been flat for a decade at about $10 million.
"As far as I can see, NHTSA's starved," Rush said. "And the impact of that starvation is pretty clear."
Former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook told the subcommittee that the agency's $133-million budget for vehicle safety research should be doubled in each of the next two years.
"This agency is starving to death. It can't do the research it should . . . it doesn't have the expertise it should," she said. "All of us suffer from that because of deaths on the highway."
Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) echoed those concerns, pressing Strickland on whether NHTSA had the expertise in its Office of Defects Investigation to understand increasingly complex electronic systems now common in vehicles and determine whether Toyota's sudden acceleration may be caused by an electronic defect.
Toyota executives have said they're confident it is not an electronics problem, instead blaming improperly placed floor mats or sticky accelerator pedals.
Strickland defended the agency, saying its 125 engineers, including five electrical engineers and a software engineer, were up to the task.
"Can we handle the current marketplace with our expertise? Yes, we can. Can we be stronger in that area? Yes, we can," Strickland said, noting that President Obama's proposed 2011 budget calls for hiring 66 new NHTSA employees.
Rush suggested Congress might further increase the number of new staffers NHTSA is authorized to hire.
"You have an important responsibility," Braley told Strickland. "Some people feel [NHTSA] has not fulfilled its responsibility to keep people safe."