NHTSA chief says rate of Toyota complaints was 'unremarkable'

Toyota Prius driver Jim Sikes frantically called 911 when his car speed out of control on a stretch of San Diego highway. Ben Tracy reports the U.S. government wants to know what happened.
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2010

Federal regulators have faced torrents of criticism for not moving more aggressively against Toyota during years of complaints regarding runaway cars.

But the chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who testifies before a House committee Thursday, disputes that criticism.

David Strickland, who was confirmed as NHTSA administrator in December, says the rate of complaints against Toyota, when compared with other makers, was "unremarkable."

And even if some statistics did point to a Toyota problem, until someone pinpoints one of the sometimes elusive causes, there is little the agency can do legally, he asserts.

"We have to find the vehicle defect that creates an unreasonable risk to safety," he told a Senate panel last week. "If we cannot find that defect, we cannot go forward."

Exactly what NHTSA should have done in response to years of complaints regarding Toyotas, as well has how the agency should handle future complaints, will be the focus of the hearing Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It is the fourth congressional hearing in the past few weeks on the issue of how Toyota and federal regulators should have responded to growing concerns about the safety of the Toyota fleet.

Toyota has recalled millions of cars around the world, but on Tuesday, another report of unintended acceleration surfaced when a 56-year-old housekeeper in a Prius sped down a driveway, crossed a road and hit a stone wall.

Lawmakers are weighing new regulation or enforcement measures for the industry and the hearing is likely to draw conflicting testimony from automakers and consumer advocates.

The industry, and Strickland, note that, overall, the rate of traffic deaths per mile traveled has steadily fallen for more than a decade.

It's an achievement the automakers attribute to their innovation, response to customer demands and cooperation with the government.

But former NHTSA head Joan Claybrook, who is also scheduled to testify Thursday, argues that much more should be done to protect drivers.

In her view, car safety has improved because automakers have been forced, either through lawsuits or government requirements, to improve their vehicles. Even so, more needs to be done, she said.

"There were 37,000 traffic fatalities in 2008," Claybrook said. "That is a lot of death."

One of the key focuses of the congressional inquiries into NHTSA is the way the agency handled and investigated consumer complaints regarding runaway Toyotas.

The agency reviewed the Toyota runaway-car issue at least six times in the past decade, most of the time ruling it could find no basis for a recall or further investigation.

In 2005, for example, Arizona resident Jordan Ziprin presented the agency with 1,172 complaints in the NHTSA database that he said resembled his own problem with a Camry that accelerated without his intending it. The agency restricted its analysis to 432 of those reports, saying that only that group resembled the alleged problem. Then it denied his petition to find a defect.

The agency "has not identified any vehicle-based cause to explain the reports, or uncovered any evidence to indicate that a throttle control system failure occurred," the agency said in response to Ziprin's complaint.

One of the proposals that will be discussed Thursday is whether to allow the public to sue to force the agency to pursue an investigation.

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