Former NTSB Head To Offer Testimony On Toyota Crisis

The massive recall of Toyotas for a series of safety concerns prompted congressional leaders to begin hearings on those issues this week. Host Lynn Neary speaks with Joan Claybrook — the former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and a long-time consumer advocate�"about Toyota's problems, and the government's response. Claybrook is scheduled to testify today.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

I'm Lynn Neary and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, we hear from the mayor of Georgetown, Kentucky, home of a major Toyota manufacturing plant. But first, the Congressional hearings regarding Toyota's mechanical failures opened yesterday with emotional testimony from Rhonda Smith, whose Lexus began speeding uncontrollably at 100 miles per hour down a Tennessee highway back in October 2006.

Ms. RHONDA SMITH: I placed both feet on the brakes after I firmly engaged the emergency brake and nothing slows the car. I figured the car was going to go to its maximum speed and I was going to have to put the car into the upcoming guardrail in order to prevent killing anyone else. And I prayed for God to help me. I called my husband on the Bluetooth phone system. I knew

(Soundbite of crying)

Ms. SMITH: I'm sorry. I knew he could not help me but I wanted to hear his voice one more time.

NEARY: The hearings continue today with scheduled testimony from Toyota President Akio Toyoda. Earlier we spoke to Joan Claybrook. She is the former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during the Carter administration and a long time consumer advocate. I asked her what went wrong with the government's response to the Toyota safety concerns.

Ms. JOAN CLAYBROOK (Former Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration): Well, I think several things went wrong. One, I don't think there was an enforcement mentality at the Department of Transportation in the last decade unfortunately. Secondly, it's a grossly underfunded agency and a very, very tiny number of investigators, only 18, for the whole country. Third, Toyota had a real influence on their thinking.

They hired some former employees of that agency who came back and said, this isn't really a problem. Let's narrow the scope of this issue. And so, while five investigations were opened, they were all closed. And then there was one initial recall and then these big recalls. So, I think the agency just wasn't the cop on the corporate beat. It was just looking at this in a very routine manner. It shouldn't have. These are serious, serious problems, defects.

People are scared to death. They can kill themselves as well as people on the highway besides themselves. So, it's a very serious defect.

NEARY: Yeah. Now, in his prepared testimony, Akio Toyoda says that he fears the cause for the recall was that Toyota has been expanding its business too rapidly and you have talked about the fact that Toyota has always had a sort of culture of secrecy. What did you mean by that?

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Well, it's a very secretive company and it tries not to release information. Every time it submits something to the Department of Transportation it claims confidentiality whether that really fits within the rules or not. And it doesn't make its event data recorders, which are these black boxes in cars, publicly available, while the other manufacturers in the United States do. But I don't think that that's the real issue.

I think the real issue here is that people have severe questions about whether or not the floor mat is the real problem with these cars that are runaway cars. And there have been many instances where there have been no floor mat and the cars have run away. And so there's a lot of concern that Toyota hasn't leveled with the American people. And I think that, sort of, the major issue, as I see it, is that Toyota has lost the trust and confidence of the public.

NEARY: Republican Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi, which is a state that has a Toyota plant, he warned against a rush to judgment. He also said in an op-ed piece today in The Washington Post that maybe the government is going to have a conflict of interest here or should be careful because the government owns a large share now in a couple of American car companies. What's your take on that?

Ms. CLAYBROOK: I think it's just another diversionary tactic. That's not the issue. This is a huge company that has big reserves. It can get over this. It just depends on how it gets over it. Toyota itself has admitted that it hasn't paid attention to consumer complaints. They dismiss them.

There's another issue that has come out in the last couple of days: A memorandum, or a presentation that was made by the safety group in Washington to their Japanese top officials that said that they saved the company $100 million by persuading the Department of Transportation to close the investigation

NEARY: Hmm.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: and just do a small recall. So, if that's their attitude, that it's all dollars and cents, they hurt themselves. It's not that there's any attack and this whole business about the government owning part of General Motors and going after them for that reason is bunk in my view.

NEARY: Okay, well, but going forward, what - and as a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, what role does that agency play here? I mean, can it do something?

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Well, yes, it is doing something actually. It just sent a very substantial series of letters, 53 pages of questions, to Toyota about two weeks ago - something they should've done eight years ago, seven years ago, six years ago. And they're looking into a lot more detail to try themselves to figure out what the true problem is here and also look into the electronics issue. That's their role.

They are the safety advocate for the American public and the regulator. And one of the issues that I've raised here is that I think one of the reasons that the auto companies sort of ignore their responsibilities is that there are no criminal penalties under the Department of Transportation statute. And so there's no threat to the executives having to go to jail if they cover this up.

And the civil penalty is only $16.4 million, which is chump change to this company. So, I think that there needs to be some revision. So, I think that that's where they're headed now finally. And they have a new administrator, David Strickland, who is quite talented. And I hope that this is what they do for the American public.

NEARY: Joan Claybrook is the former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration where she served up until 1981. She's also a well-known consumer advocate and she is testifying - scheduled to testify today at the hearings on the Hill on this issue. She was kind enough to swing by our Washington, D.C. studios before heading up there. Thanks so much. It was good talking to you.

Ms. CLAYBROOK: Thank you so much.

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