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NHTSA's previous car pedal safety efforts died, stalled amid industry opposition

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.

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 11, 2011; 11:46 PM

With a federal investigation this week shifting much of the blame for Toyota's unintended-acceleration incidents onto drivers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that it would study ways of designing car pedals to prevent people from confusing the brake and accelerator.

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But similar efforts have fizzled in the past, in part because of industry opposition. In 1989, after unintended acceleration in Audis caused a similar furor, federal studies twice proposed changes to pedal size and placement.

The recommendations, the result of three collective years of research, never made it into law, and it took the agency decades to mandate another design recommendation that safely secures the brake before motorists start their engines.

NHTSA officials, in a statement, said there was "no basis for regulation" in the earlier recommendations for pedal configuration.

But critics, including a former chief of the agency, said NHTSA dropped the effort after protests from the industry. Similar opposition stalled auto safety legislation in Congress last year.

"They'll never institute a standard for pedal placement," said Joan Claybrook, former NHTSA chief. "And the reason is the industry doesn't want NHTSA to get involved in it. When it was proposed last year, they went crazy over that."

Auto Alliance spokesman Wade Newton said the safety benefits of pedal standardization are "still questionable" and that the industry supports further research instead of a legal mandate.

Incidents of unintended acceleration have claimed dozens of lives, and NHTSA officials have steadfastly said that, in the absence of a detectable vehicle defect, "pedal misapplication" is frequently the cause for such events.

The primary NHTSA report emerging from the sudden-acceleration complaints for Audi 5000 sedans in the 1980s - involving one out of every 155 vehicles - solidified this view and offered three recommendations to deal with it.

Two involved changing and standardizing the configuration of the pedals. A separate, 260-page pedal placement study proposed specific designs.

E. Donald Sussman, the lead author of the primary study, said automakers fought it because "it gets directly into their marketing. It would be the government designing cars for them."

And Michael Perel, chief of NHSTA's human factors division at the time, said it has been difficult to troubleshoot problems without creating new ones.

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