Toyota's woes raise questions about NHTSA resources

By Sholnn Freeman
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

When Toyota announced Tuesday another global recall [Story, A12] -- this one for more than 400,000 Prius and other hybrid vehicles to fix a software glitch in the braking system -- it wasn't a bad day just for the embattled automaker.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which plays the leading U.S. watchdog role in automobile safety, has also drawn criticism over Toyota's troubles.

So far, the car company's diagnosis of the unexpected accelerations in Toyota and Lexus vehicles has focused on floor mats and sticky pedals. Independent investigators and consumer groups, meanwhile, have pointed at faulty electronic systems as the likely culprit. They have also been zeroing in on the NHTSA, wondering whether it was relying too heavily on an automaker it monitors.

Congress, too, is interested in whether the Transportation Department agency reacted properly to years of complaints and evidence presented.

Now some question whether the agency with its origins in controversy over car safety has the resources it needs.

Ralph Nader made himself a household name when he published his 1965 book, "Unsafe at Any Speed," his exposé of the automobile industry. By 1966, Congress had created the federal agency that eventually would evolve into the NHTSA. The agency has been credited with dramatically lowering the number of highway deaths, partly by making seat belts and air bags standard equipment in vehicles.

In a statement Tuesday, the NHTSA pointed to an investigation record that, in the last three years, has prompted 524 recalls involving 23.5 million vehicles. The agency has the most active defect investigation program in the world, it said, adding that it receives more than 30,000 complaints from consumers every year and reviews each one within one business day.

"Even so, we have requested additional staff in the next budget," the agency said.

The agency has been left shorthanded and struggling, critics and observers say.

The NHTSA has about 635 employees and an annual budget of $870 million, 70 percent of which goes to states and local governments in the form of highway-traffic safety grants. By contrast, the Federal Aviation Administration has 47,000 employees and consumes more than $16 billion annually.

The NHTSA's defect investigations are up against many other agency initiatives. Under Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the agency has stepped up efforts to discourage cellphone use and texting as a driving distraction. Last year, NHTSA staff was overwhelmed during the "Cash for Clunkers" rebate program and had to enlist contractors to help. The agency also vies for attention within the Transportation Department with other administration priorities, such as high-speed rail, highway and infrastructure projects, airline safety and investigation of large-scale disasters.

The department has asked Congress for 66 additional personnel at the NHTSA, including eight to work in the auto-safety enforcement office.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, and other safety advocates question whether the NHTSA can get to the bottom of the problems at Toyota. "The problem for the government is they have a lot to chew on, and they don't have many teeth," Ditlow said. "If the problem is electronics -- and we believe it is -- the agency doesn't have the resources to do the job."

Safety advocates are also critical of the agency's record-keeping when it comes to vehicle safety defects. They say the NHTSA's early-warning system database, which is meant to help the agency and consumers gather and analyze information, is poorly organized. "We think the agency needs appropriate resources to make its defects database more useful both to the agency and consumers," said Ami Gadhia, policy counsel for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports.

Kitty Higgins, a member of National Transportation Safety Board from 2006 to 2009, remembers discussions with NHTSA officials about the crashworthiness of motor coaches. "When we met with them, they said they didn't have one that they tested," Higgins said. "They said it was an issue of priorities and funding."

Higgins said the agency finally bought a bus to crash after years of prodding by the safety board. "They have a lot of different things on their plate," she said. "The question is, are they spread too thin?"

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