By on February 25, 2010

After Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood received a somewhat half-hearted tongue-lashing from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and after a more vigorous (yet equally unsatisfying) grilling of Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda, yesterday’s hearings wound down with a third panel. Panel three opened with a boost to the committee’s emotional outrage batteries courtesy of the Saylor family relative Fe Lastrella, as well as some of the first compelling evidence of an undiscovered problem with Toyota vehicles from the firsthand experience of Kevin Haggerty. These two witnesses gave evidence that was in step with a lot of the previous testimony, offering more new questions for legislators than answers. But after these two spoke, the committee heard from former Carter administration NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook and the director of the Center for Auto Safety, Clarence Ditlow. Claybrook and Ditlow were the first witnesses to provide suggestions for NHTSA reform, but after the confusion of the day’s testimony, the committee apparently didn’t realize that their recommendations were aimed at bringing NHTSA regulation forward, into the past.

Both Claybrook and Ditlow are products of the Ralph Nader legacy: Claybrook ran the Nader-founded group Public Citizen, while Ditlow is the current director of the Nader-founded Center for Automotive Safety (and gained infamy for his role in the NBC “GM Firebomb” scandal). Claybrook worked closely with Nader to pass the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, as well as the Highway Safety Act, some of the first safety legislation ever passed in the US. At the time, these bills were easily justified by relatively high accident rates, and they have most likely made important contributions to the consistent reductions in accidents per vehicle mile traveled (VMT) that have occurred ever since.

But the fact that deaths per VMT are currently at their lowest levels since statistics have been regularly recorded doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression on Claybrook, who seems stuck in a time-warp of Nader-heyday attitudes towards auto safety. One of her main assertions: that NHTSA’s defect investigation capabilities haven’t been significantly upgraded since her tenure at NHTSA, seems damning until you put it in the context of significant declines in fatalities per VMT.

Absent any recognition of the improvements in auto safety since her tenure (which are graphically illustrated by the IIHS’s recent crash test video), Ms Claybrook’s main proposals seem particularly anachronistic. Her first suggestion, that NHTSA be given the power to file criminal complaints against automakers, is hardly justified by the circumstances of the Toyota case. Secretary LaHood was unequivocal in stating that Toyota had issued its own recalls for floor mats and gas pedals before NHTSA even launched investigations. Unless Claybrook was proposing that NHTSA be authorized to act as judge, jury and executioner before even marshaling the facts of a case, it’s difficult to understand how this extra authority could have made a difference in the case of Toyota (unless, of course, a major electronic bug is proven to have existed and been covered up, a finding that NHTSA is likely months away from making).

Ultimately, this advocacy leads up to Claybrook’s main point: the NHTSA should see its funding increase by about $100m to allow for more reporting, investigations and presumably to wield the criminal complaint powers that Claybrook would also have bestowed upon the Agency. Without belaboring the point or bringing the conversation too far off topic, the United States currently finds itself in a fairly severe budget and debt crisis. $100m pales in comparison to the auto bailout, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and any number of other hot-button political issues, but what Claybrook is recommending is a massive commitment of resources to a problem that is in a decades-long decline.

Not only are fatalities per VMT declining on an absolute scale, but the number of deaths caused by defects (specifically unintended acceleration in Toyotas, which prompted Ms Claybrook’s recommendations) also pales in comparison to the overall fatalities per VMT. The number of deaths blamed on unintended acceleration in Toyotas over the past decade varies from 6 to 36, depending on the source. When compared to the 35k-40k fatal accidents that have occurred in each of the past 15 years or so, it’s clear that this current media-fueled frenzy does not justify the kind of massive buildup in NHTSA resources that Claybrook recommends.

That Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood did not request extra funding (beyond the 66 new positions already proposed in the Obama budget) is telling: LaHood certainly doesn’t want to be back in front of congress with another scandal, and if there were ever an opportunity for him to ask for more resources, yesterday’s hearings were it. Unfortunately, LaHood did  prove in his testimony that he is not free from Naderite tendencies: when one committee member suggested that safety must be balanced against other issues, and that there is no such thing as a 100 percent safe car, LaHood took umbrage, stating that it was his agency’s goal to uncompromisingly dedicate itself to the goal of making cars 100 percent safe.

This is an admirable motivation, but it begs an important practical question: if defects blamed for no more than 36 deaths in a decade can inspire two days of congressional hearings (complete with contrite executives flown in from Japan), what causes the other 35,000 plus annual traffic fatalities, and what are these acolytes of the church of safety doing about them? The answer gets to the heart of the Toyota issue, and the issue of vehicle safety as a whole, because the majority of those 35k annual “accidents” are in fact caused by some form of driver error.

Unfortunately for Claybrook and Ditlow, this does not fit conveniently with a worldview forged in the Nader-era of anti-corporate consumer advocacy. Every word of Claybrook and Ditlow’s testimony dripped with the baggage of their activist backgrounds, in which corporations could not be contained by concern for their own reputations, requiring huge resources for constant, pervasive, and confrontational government regulation. Though the current Toyota recall scandal proves that NHTSA must remain vigilant, it also proves how devastating a relatively small defect (compared to the number of Americans who die in cars every year) can be for a company’s reputation, especially in an industry that’s as competitive as the auto industry.

It’s said that when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Clearly Claybrook and Ditlow are stuck in an era that has little to do with the safety climate of today. Now, more than ever, safety regulations need to be balanced against environmental and efficiency regulations. More importantly, self-appointed consumer advocates need to balance the number of road deaths caused by corporate malfeasance against the number of road deaths caused by human error, before determining where hundreds of millions of tax dollars would be best spent. Ironically, this challenge has already dogged Secretary LaHood in his campaign against distracted driving, although it hasn’t seemed to increase his interest in tackling safety as a crisis of personal responsibility.

As stuck in the past as they are, asking Claybrook and Ditlow for recommendations in the wake of the Toyota recalls was a bit like asking a Soviet central planner for advice in managing the government’s stake in GM: the problem isn’t that they aren’t intelligent, well-meaning people, it’s that their battles have already been waged, and the world has moved on. Driving cars will continue to be the most dangerous activity any of us engage in on a regular basis, and it’s time to stop pretending that this reality can be reduced to something as simple as corporate greed.

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23 Comments on “The Toyota Testimony, Day Two: The 70s Are Back...”

  • avatar

    Well, it was said that Obama is the second coming of Carter — if we’re lucky.

  • avatar

    don’t underestimate the amorality of (some) corporations in their quest for profits. The number of deaths may be small, but my sense is that Toyota has dismissed the complaints of unintended acceleration. I don’t know whether their problem has been arrogance, a desire to avoid spending money, or both.

    I think where Claybrook (and maybe Ditlow) may be stuck is in the old notion that human behavior can’t be changed so you design safety that leaves the human out of the equation (for example, you can’t get these creatures to wear seatbelts so give ’em mouse belts and then airbags).

    • 0 avatar

      @DaveH: 25-years in the automotive business, at various levels and functions, and I can tell you that the answer to your question is a solid “both”.

    • 0 avatar

      Robert – As an automotive quality engineer (with a meager 4 years of experience specifically in supplier, internal, and warranty issues), I’d venture to say this was more of a “what in ever loving hell is causing this?” Luckily, almost all the issues I’ve had to solve have had zero possibility of user error. This potential makes finding a root cause of UA insanely difficult.

  • avatar

    I’m not sure what point is being made here. Even in aerospace (or medicine), where the design, maintenance, and operation requirements are MUCH more stringent and carefully monitored, the greatest source of catastrophic failure is, by several orders of magnitude, the human behind the controls.

    Does this mean that the FAA (FDA) are wasting our money verifying the reliability of other parts of the system to ever-higher standards?

    The best opportunities for automobile fatality improvements are almost certainly in the area of operator training. That’s not a direction this country has been willing to go. Maybe it should be, though the argument gets harder to make as we become more dependent on auto-mobility.

    Despite this, I think regulators need to become more sophisticated in their monitoring of ever-more-complex automotive systems (development). I’m afraid that’s the cost of living in this age of technological wonders.

  • avatar

    Don’t underestimate the amorality of left wing idealists as well! They will use any wedge available to gain more control of our reckless (to them) population. Every layer of regulation adds more cost to vehicles and generally reduces the efficiency. You want less accidents, teach people to drive better. The vast majority of drivers are incompetent at any level, much less one requiring quick thinking and decisive action. While I sympathize with those who died, did they put the car in neutral? engage the emergency brake? shut the car off? put both feet on the brakes? No one is saying, and I’d like to hear. My understanding is that brake force will always overcome acceleration. Too many people in North America are unwilling to take any responsibility for their own actions, or lack thereof, and always want to blame someone or something.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree with you, and I’m a leftist. Not the fake Fox news version, which is anyone who disagrees with them, but an actual Socialist.

      We’ve whipped the nation into a fervor because we refuse to better train people operating very dangerous machines. I have before dared people to find me a single case of unintended acceleration in Europe, where the standards for obtaining a license are much higher, and that challenge still stands.

      These Senators and congresspeople are probably not leftists, by the way. The only two federal politicians coming even close to that in America are Sanders and Kucinich.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      I’m all for much more rigorous driver training and licensing requirements. But, isn’t that another form of the gosh darn gov’ment messing with the lives of ordinary folks?

    • 0 avatar


      The reason Europe is not experiencing UA is all part of the evil plot where Toyota uses only the faulty parts for US vehicles….weren’t you listening during the inquisition….er….I mean investigation.

  • avatar

    Sorry Ed, Even though I buy-into cost-vs-benefit thinking, I don’t buy the argument that, relative to vehicle safety, we have reached the end of the line in improvement or even diminishing returns.

    Maybe the statistics won’t bear me out, but if at the time of the 1966 NTMVSA somebody had offered the same argument as you are offering here, we would never have started the process of continuous improvement.

    • 0 avatar

      Hey, we agree for once. To me 37,000 deaths per year is way too many, and we should make it a national priority to continue to bring this total down. We’ll never have 100% safe cars though, and I don’t agree with Claybrook’s recommendations of heavy-handed tactics.

      We’ve discussed the issue of driver training many times on TTAC, so I won’t belabor the point. The upshot is that training doesn’t keep drivers from crashing — no one’s discovered the key to that vexing problem. Also, even if we did find some magic bullet, how much would it cost in these tax-averse times to train 200 million people?

    • 0 avatar

      In 1966, we weren’t at the same place regarding vehicular fatality rates that we are now.

      Safety – either active or passive – simply wasn’t an important part of American (or Japanese, or even most German) automotive design in 1966. That factor alone means that the argument would simply not have been plausible in 1966. That doesn’t mean it isn’t plausible today, when automakers push safety features and five-star crash ratings as much as they push performance or sex appeal. Compare an ad for a typical 1966 family sedan or coupe to an ad for a 2010 vehicle.

  • avatar

    BTW, during testimony, Inaba-san said that it was too early to announce, but that Toyota was going to name two people of note to TMC’s quality-safety council … for a moment, I was thinking that they might go into the lions-den and name Nader and Claybrook…

  • avatar
    crash sled

    This is the age-old tussle within government, whether to use enforcement compliance or administrative compliance.

    The former is activist and costly, and puts the subjects on the defensive, and they often seek ways to beat the Man. Regular inspection schedules are put in place, these soon becoming perfunctory and blinded by bureaucratic sloth, often the norm.

    The latter is passive and less costly, and aspires to the better angels of our nature, by putting self-reporting at the top of the hierarchy, but requires an evolving set of reporting standards that identify and track critical parameters, and surfaces anomalies, for direct administrative action. I believe this model is both cheaper, and more responsive, oftentimes.

    In the environmental arena, which is more my bailiwick, the enforcement model is often pushed by the more radical types, but the administrative model leverages many folks like me, who are out to do good and are force multipliers for regulatory compliance.

    Toyota is currently getting clobbered in the showrooms across this country, and their market cap value is still way down. You’ll get more “compliance” out of those forces than an army of fed bureaucrats, I suspect.

    A lean and mean NHTSA is the way to go. Collect the data. Analyze the data. Report the data. Revise the data collected as necessary, over time, as needs evolve, such as drive-by-wire. That’s the way to go.

  • avatar

    Yes 35 deaths in 10 years isn’t a big deal unless they happen to someone you love and could have been prevented.

    • 0 avatar
      crash sled

      Yes, but undoubtedly, the 35 deaths in 10 years were mostly caused by driver error, and that we can do something about. And yes, they could be someone we love and care about, even more reason to do something about it. Teach your children well.

  • avatar

    Not that I doubt the ability of the people gathering the data for deaths caused by UA, but where is it coming from?

    The reason I ask is that accidents that have excessive speed as a factor could be UA events, or could be someone just driving to fast. How can one really tell the difference if they weren’t looking for it?

    I understand the cost benefit analysis as well for this, but that shouldn’t have kept Toyota from investigating this or the NHTSA. I also think that people effected by this, by property damage, physical harm, or death should be able to sue the guys making the vehicles for damages. After all, there is a cost benefit analysis for ordering recalls, applying fixes, and actually investigating the complaints.

    The part that bothers me most about this is the fact that Toyota so quickly came out with fixes for both issues. If the problem is so hard to find, recreate and diagnosis, how were they able to do this so quickly only after all of the media attention?

  • avatar

    Ed, I fully share your assessment and only offer three additional points:

    1) The admonition to “follow the money” is always true. Throughout their history Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety have largely been funded not by Nader but by the plaintiffs’ bar. Claybrook and Ditlow are not so much stuck in the past as they are seeking payment in the present.

    2) The TREAD Act, which came out of the Ford/Firestone fiasco, was the most significant amendment to the Motor Vehicle Safety Act since 1966, and it DOES call for criminal penalties against companies and their employees who fail to submit accurate and timely defect and claims information.

    3) The best qualified NHTSA Administrator in years, perhaps ever, was Dr. Jeffrey Runge, appointed by Dubya of all people. While he advocated tougher vehicle standards in some areas (roof crush and rollover stability, for example), he said the greatest potential for reducing traffic deaths now lay in changing driver behavior, and especially taking drunks and incompetents off the road. He resigned after beating his head against that wall for a few years and finding that no politician was going to support making a driver’s license harder to get and easier to lose.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    “Every word of Claybrook and Ditlow’s testimony dripped with the baggage of their activist backgrounds, in which corporations could not be contained by concern for their own reputations, requiring huge resources for constant, pervasive, and confrontational government regulation.’

    There is little evidence that large corporations do the right thing absent confrontational government regulation. Corporations are simply collections of people.

    What do you think the crime rate would be in your area if the local police force were disbanded and society was left to simply sort things out based on reputation, etc.?

    • 0 avatar

      John Horner: There is little evidence that large corporations do the right thing absent confrontational government regulation. Corporations are simply collections of people.

      There is plenty of evidence, and a big one is that this is a huge story. Why is it a huge story? Because Toyotas have rarely had these defects. In other words, Toyota – and all other car makers – get it right most of the time, because they don’t want to make and sell faulty products.

      You are assuming that most mistakes are intentional, or the result of people just not caring. In reality, even the strictest testing procedures can’t uncover every potential glitch and error.

      John Horner: What do you think the crime rate would be in your area if the local police force were disbanded and society was left to simply sort things out based on reputation, etc.?

      It might drop lower, because people wouldn’t sit around and wait until they discovered whether an alleged perpetrator had a good reputation. Said citizens would arm themselves, and would be more likely than the police to shoot first and ask questions later. Look at what happened to crime rates in the New York subways immediately after Bernie Goetz shot four would-be muggers in late 1984.

  • avatar

    These three need to be strapped into a Toyota and let it go off and do its “unintended” thing.

    • 0 avatar

      Aw, but if it weren’t for Nader I’d never been able to afford my vintage Corvairs! Maybe in a year or so I can pick up an SC 430 or LS 460L for peanuts…(grin)

  • avatar


    Nice piece; well written. I watched the hearings up to the point of the 3rd panel on Day 2. After the Rhonda Smith drivel, I couldn’t bring myself to sit through Claybrook, Ditlow, et al as it was too close to dinner time in the eastern time zone. (i.e. Why ruin a perfectly good meal by starting out with indigestion.)

    Your service is appreciated.

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