The Toyota Testimony, Day Two: The 70s Are Back

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

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.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Rpol35 Rpol35 on Feb 26, 2010

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

    • BuzzDog BuzzDog on Feb 26, 2010

      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)

  • TomH TomH on Feb 26, 2010

    Ed, 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.

  • Jerry Haan I have these same lights, and the light output, color, and coverage is amazing!Be aware, these lights interfere with AM and FM radio reception with the stereoreceiver I have in my garage. When the lights are on, I all the AM stations havelots of static, and there are only a couple of FM stations that are clear. When Iturn the lights off, all the radio stations work fine. I have tried magnetic cores on the power cords of the lights, that did not makeany change. The next thing I am going to try is mounting an antenna in my atticto get them away from the lights. I contacted the company for support, they never responded.
  • Lou_BC Are Hot Wheels cars made in China?
  • DS No for 2 reasons. 1-Every new car pipelines data back to the manufacturer; I don't like it with domestic, Japanese and Euro companies and won't put up with it going to Chinese companies that are part financed by their government. 2-People have already mentioned Vinfast, but there's also the case of Hyundai. Their cars were absolutely miserable for years before they learned enough about the US market
  • Theflyersfan Well, if you're on a Samsung phone, (noticing all of the shipping boxes are half Vietnamese), you're using a Vietnam-built phone. Apple? Most of ours in the warehouse say China, but they are trying to spread out to other countries because putting all eggs in the Chinese basket right now is not wise. I'm asking Apple users here (the point of above) - if you're OK using an expensive iPhone, where is your Made in China line in the sand? Can't stress this enough - not being confrontational. I am curious, that's all. Is it because Apple is California-based that manufacturing location doesn't matter, vs a company in a Beijing skyscraper? We have all weekend to hopefully have a civil discussion about how much is too much when it comes to supporting companies being HQ-ed in adversarial countries. I, for one, can't pull the trigger on a Chinese car. All kinds of reasons - political, human rights, war mongering and land grabbing - my morality is ruling my decisions with them.
  • Jbltg Ford AND VAG. What could possibly go wrong?