NHTSA overly reliant on carmakers' accounts during complaint reviews, critics say

Last year, Toyota took the extraordinary step of suspending the manufacture and sale of some of its most popular models because of a flaw in their accelerators. Toyota executives soon were called to Capitol Hill for testimony and a probe was launched to find the cause of the problem.
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010

The deluge of complaints about Toyota cars, first over floor mats, then over sticky pedals and recently over Prius brakes, has aroused criticism that federal regulators compromised vehicle safety by too often trusting carmakers' explanations.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is charged with protecting the nation's drivers, has long relied on automakers to help identify perils posed by the cars they make.

The reliance on automakers' cooperation, however, might have diminished drivers' say in the safety review process. During agency reviews, officials have at times minimized or simply rejected consumer accounts of what happened in favor of the manufacturers' assessments, records show.

Persistent but unresolved consumer complaints led to Toyota's current troubles, critics say, forcing the company to recall millions of cars around the world. On Thursday, the NHTSA announced that it had launched an investigation of the brakes on the company's popular Prius hybrid.

The questions about safety have highlighted long-standing criticism of the agency.

"Unfortunately, if the manufacturer says it's OK, then it's OK with them," said Jeffery A. Pepski, 54, a Minnesota driver who unsuccessfully petitioned the NHTSA with a complaint that his Lexus ES 350 accelerated unexpectedly on his way home from work last year. "The agency follows that logic all the way through their investigations. They're not really investigating with an open mind."

NHTSA officials said Thursday that the agency does not rely solely on the manufacturers during investigations. The officials said the NHTSA has a staff of professional investigators who hear from drivers and companies. They take the cars in question on road tests, interview police and ensure that "all avenues are explored," the officials said. Moreover, even critics concede that human memory is fallible.

In examining consumer complaints, the regulators routinely seek out the automaker's engineering analysis, ask that the company inform them of any similar accusations, and require that the manufacturer pass on the details of any injuries, deaths or lawsuits that the alleged defect might have caused.

The company's responses are critical in the agency's determination of whether a defect actually exists, and automakers that fail to respond can be fined as much as $16 million, NHTSA officials said.

The agency and the manufacturers know each other well. Two top officials in Toyota's Washington office, which deals with the NHTSA, are former agency employees.

It is a relationship "built on trust," said Nicole Nason, who was the agency's administrator from 2006 to 2008.

Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, says the agency appears to have been too willing to accept Toyota's version of events.

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