Toyota Cars and Automobile Regulation, Still Defective: Recall Could Miss a Million Faulty Cars. Congress Should Investigate.

by Sidney Shapiro

November 25, 2009

This morning, Toyota Motor Corporation announced it intends to replace accelerator pedals on about 3.8 million recalled vehicles in the United States because the pedals can get stuck in a floor mat. But the recall could still leave more than a million faulty cars on the road.

As I wrote earlier, there had been over 2,000 reports from the owners of Toyota cars that they have surged forward without warning reaching speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. NHTSA has investigated Toyota for runaway cars on eight separate occasions, but the agency only ordered two small recalls, which addressed floor mats and carpet panels. It is not apparent why the agency did not act more forcefully, and Congress should investigate that.

A problem with relying on recalls, as NHTSA often does to correct safety defects, is that not all vehicle owners will have the cars and trucks fixed. NHTSA indicates that the overall effectiveness of recalls is about 72%, which means Toyota will not fix about 1.1 million cars, assuming the average recall rate applies.

This is one reason why it is better if NHTSA requires manufacturers to design safe cars rather than waiting for defects to show up and instituting a recall. But this strategy does not work if the agency cannot anticipate a problem or it lacks the political will to issue a regulation for a problem that it does recognize. Congress should dig into this.

Consumers Reports has produced a video that demonstrates how other brands of cars have a built-in safety system that if the accelerator gets struck, you can step on the brake and it will over-ride the accelerator and stop the car. Since Toyota does not have this system, it is more difficult to stop their cars, although the video demonstrates how to do this. NHTSA could require this system be built into all cars.

This story is likely to continue. ABC news notes “safety expert Sean Kane said the recall doesn't address hundreds of runaway Toyota cases he has uncovered where owners insist floor mats cannot be blamed.” I hope NHTSA is looking into these cases, but the agency has been looking into this problem for a number of years without doing anything to address this apparent problem.

Perhaps NHTSA is blameless, but we will not know this until Congress investigates. As someone who has studied regulatory dysfunction for years, I know that there can be a number of causes. But, unless Congress takes responsibility for identifying and addressing the causes, American consumers will continue to be at risk.

Tagged as: Toyota, recall
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Sidney A. Shapiro holds the Fletcher Chair in Administrative Law at the Wake Forest University School of Law and is the Associate Dean for Research and Development. He is a member of the board of directors of the Center for Progressive Reform.

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