By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010; A13
The chief of the nation's auto safety regulators rejected criticism on Thursday that his agency made mistakes and responded too slowly to years of complaints regarding runaway Toyotas.
David L. Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, also denied in testimony before a House committee that the agency had become a "lap dog" for the car industry rather than a watchdog protecting the American public.
"From my review of the work done, if we're talking about Toyota specifically, this agency opened eight separate investigations over the time period when there were complaints about sudden acceleration," Strickland said. "A lap dog doesn't open eight investigations."
The hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the fourth congressional hearing in recent weeks involving NHTSA and the safety of Toyota cars, was meant to review the agency's actions and whether it has enough funding, personnel and legal authority to investigate defects in the industry.
The 600-plus-person agency has plans to add 66 people under its proposed budget. Strickland is also exploring whether it might need more legal authority to regulate the modern, more international auto industry.
As for new regulations, the government might make brake override systems mandatory, which would allow a driver to stop a car even if the throttle is stuck open. It is also considering requiring event data recorders, or "black boxes," that would save information about the car's operation in the event of a crash -- a device many cars already feature.
But lawmakers have differed over threshold questions regarding the Toyota controversy, such as whether NHTSA and Toyota have failed to meet their responsibilities.
In opening his testimony, Strickland reported that traffic fatalities had fallen 8.9 percent to 33,963 in 2009, which he said was the lowest annual level since 1954.
"NHTSA's programs work, and they work well," he said.
The agency has faced a wave of criticism that it has been too close to the industry it regulates. Two former NHTSA regulators work for Toyota's Washington office. And although the agency has conducted eight investigations into reports on unintended acceleration, as Strickland noted, most of those inquiries were closed without a finding of a defect.
At the same time, the complaints against Toyota and Toyota Lexus vehicles were mounting. By September, Toyota, and particularly Toyota Lexus vehicles, stood out for having more federally filed complaints of unintended acceleration than other manufacturers, according to an analysis by Edmunds.com, the automotive Web site.
It wasn't until September, after years of complaints, that Toyota initiated its recalls of millions of cars and trucks.
"NHTSA's response to the safety defects implicated in these recalls has been sluggish at best," said Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.). "NHTSA has suffered years of stagnation in funding."
Dingell asked Strickland whether NHTSA should have pushed Toyota to initiate recalls earlier.
"We pushed the recalls when we had the evidence of an unreasonable risk defect," Strickland said.