Toyota Recall Shines Harsh Light On Safety Agency

A federal agency — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — is supposed to keep track of auto safety-related complaints like those surrounding Toyota's accelerator problems, and warn the public. But critics say the agency has lacked leadership and that most of its funds are doled out to states to combat drunken driving and promote seat-belt usage.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

Toyota has a new problem, this time with its popular hybrid car, the Prius. Today, the company acknowledged design problems with the antilock breaking system in some 2010 models. Toyota says it has corrected the problem in Priuses sold since late last month.

WERTHEIMER: Still, U.S. safety regulators today opened a formal investigation into complaints about the Prius. That car has not been recalled. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, known as NHTSA, is also concerned with the massive recall of other Toyota models. The problems have focused attention not just on Toyota, but also on NHTSA, the government agency responsible for investigating auto safety complaints.

NPR's Brain Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: The agency, which critics say has for too long been in the backseat in the Toyota investigation, was without a permanent leader for nearly two years, including the last months of the Bush administration and almost the entire first year of the Obama White House. Former administrator Joan Claybrook says that lack of leadership left its mark on NHTSA.

Ms. JOAN CLAYBROOK (Former Administrator, NHTSA): I think that theyre really on the ball right now. I think that they were behind the eight ball for a couple of years. And there were complaints that came in. They opened investigations. Toyota gave them answers, and they closed the investigations. And I think that, as a result, some people have been killed and injured that wouldnt have been otherwise.

NAYLOR: In December, David Strickland, a former Senate staffer whom Claybrook gives high marks, took the reins. NHTSA was a product of the '60s, formed after consumer advocate Ralf Naders book, "Unsafe at Any Speed" threw a harsh light on the lack of safety concerns in the auto industry. Claybrook presided over the agency during the Carter administration, a time, she says, when NHTSAs budget was, in inflation-adjusted dollars, higher than it is now. Most of NHTSAs money goes to states in the form of grants to combat drunken driving and promote seatbelt use.

President Obama has proposed a slight increase for NHTSA, which would enable it to hire a handful more investigators. Claybrook says the agency has wide-ranging powers to probe safety related claims that, in recent years, its been unwilling to use.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Well, they have very strong authority for doing investigations, subpoena power, the ability to contract with companies to evaluate anything they want. They can go after the dealers or the suppliers or the manufacturers. They have tremendous authority. It hasnt always been exercised. Thats the leadership issue.

NAYLOR: In the case of Toyota, NHTSA was aware of complaints of sudden acceleration as far back as 2003 and opened several investigations. But they were always closed without a call for Toyota to act. Allan Kam was a NHTSA attorney for 25 years, now retired. Kam says that within NHTSAs Office of Defects Investigation, or ODI, was a culture that was skeptical of complaints of sudden acceleration.

Mr. ALLAN KAM (Former Attorney, NHTSA): There tended to be sort of an institutional bias against sudden acceleration at ODI, that - this belief that, going back some years ago, that there's no such thing as sudden acceleration. It was just pedal misapplication.

NAYLOR: In other words, blaming drivers for hitting the gas instead of the brakes. NHTSA has also been plagued with another Washington malady: the revolving door. Sometimes it worked in reverse. During the Bush administration, the agency hired a number of people from the auto industry to key positions, where they looked favorably on their former employers. Claybrook says NHTSA has become too cozy with the industry.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: I think it has been. A number of officials, starting in the Reagan years, left D.C. and went to work for the industry, either as lawyers or as lobbyists or as engineers.

NAYLOR: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has defended NHTSAs performance, telling a congressional panel yesterday that it were it not for the agency, Toyota would not have recalled more than five million vehicles because of problems with sudden acceleration.

Secretary RAY LAHOOD (Department of Transportation): The reason they're where they're at today is because of our investigations, our meetings with them, the fact that then, our acting NHTSA administrator went to Japan and met with the Toyota officials and told them in no uncertain terms: You need to get on this. You got a problem. You need to fix it. Find the fix.

NAYLOR: NHTSA, which would not make administrator Strickland available for an interview, is expected to use one of the strongest arrows in its quiver: A $16.4 million fine to sting the company. Still, thats far less than Toyota is likely to spend on the recall and lost sales of its cars.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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