Safety Research & Strategies Takes DOT and NHTSA Transparency Battle to Court; Sues for Toyota Investigation Documents

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Safety Research & Strategies, a Massachusetts safety research firm that advocates for consumers on safety matters, sued the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration today over the release of Toyota Unintended Acceleration investigation documents.

The civil action, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Civil Action No. 11-2165), alleges that the U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA violated the Freedom of Information Act by withholding public records involving an unintended acceleration incident reported by a 2007 Lexus RX owner in Sarasota Florida, and requests the court to order their release.

“One of President Obama’s first acts was to issue an Executive Order on transparency and open government, pledging a commitment to creating ‘an unprecedented level of openness in government,’” says SRS founder and President Sean E. Kane. “The DOT and NHTSA have pledged transparency but have consistently kept vital information from the public.  The agency’s numerous investigations into Toyota Unintended Acceleration have been characterized by continued secrecy, preventing a full accounting of their activities and the complete replication of their analyses by independent parties.  This lawsuit asks the court to compel the release of documents that are relevant to a significant safety recall.”

Slow Burn: Chevy Volt Fires

That DOT Secretary Ray LaHood is always yakking about transparency – at his confirmation hearing, at budget hearings, about airline fees, and business flight plans. During the U.S. House of Representative’s Toyota Unintended Acceleration hearings in February 2010, when Congressman Ed Markey asked the Secretary of Transportation:

“What do you think about the public in terms of them providing – being provided with more information regarding potential safety defects that automakers tell the department about even before an investigation is opened or a recall is announced?

LaHood replied: “Need for transparency.  The more information we can give the public, the better.”

Unless…..the defect is really bad, and the press will be on it like white on rice and it involves a major automaker, whose fortunes are tightly entwined with the government. Yes, we’re looking at you General Motors. (Or, as some would have it, Government Motors.)

NHTSAball: How the Agency Plays the Game

Moneyball has opened in the movie theaters, starring Brad Pitt as the redoubtable Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Beane had been a future baseball superstar who washed out after three seasons of bench-warming and bouncing between Triple-A and major league teams. He was, however, that rare individual who resisted his own PR, which was certain and glowing, and the perfect foil for the movie’s real subject: baseball statistics and how numbers could guide a poor team like the A’s to the playoffs more regularly than the conventional wisdom said was possible.

The A’s, as Michael Lewis, author of the book on which it is based describes the team, was populated with Major League’s castoffs – catchers and pitchers who looked more like beer-swilling bowlers, college prospects that the talent scouts had deemed too cold to bother with, and a computer nerd for an assistant GM.  But Beane knew from his own field experience just how wrong Major League Baseball could be in assessing players. He chose, instead, to exploit a different set of metrics developed by a passionate fan who happened to be statistically apt, but shunned by the rest of Beane’s peers. Using this recipe, he cobbles together victory after victory.  The book roughly follows the A’s during the 2002 season, from the June amateur player’s draft to the historic September 4th game, in which the A’s won their 20th consecutive game – breaking a 102-year old American League record.

Among the book’s heroes is Bill James. James is the quirky inventor of Sabermetrics, the statistical analysis of baseball data, used to better understand success and failure in the game. James had a restless, numerically inclined mind and, it would be fair to say, an obsessive interest in baseball. The marriage of his aptitude and his interests produced a series of abstracts and books on baseball metrics, beginning in 1977. At first, James was ignored by all but a handful of fans. But, eventually, he gained a following. And in 1997 one of them became the manager of the Oakland A’s.

If the narrative has a villain, it’s Major League Baseball itself. Wholly in the thrall of its own myths, this billion dollar enterprise, when it bothered with data at all, used it incorrectly. Rich teams could skim the obvious cream of talent, but beyond buying wins, hadn’t a clue how it was really done.

Lewis’s point was that even with huge sums of money at stake, those most vested in the outcome can be utterly blinded by their own subjective biases. Once biases are institutionalized, they become facts, stubborn in the face of new or competing or different information. Those who can’t even identify the data that should be informing critical decisions – let alone using it properly – are bound to make expensive mistakes.

So what’s The Safety Record’s point? We saw a number of striking parallels to the way NHTSA operates, when it comes to numbers.  The agency is, ostensibly, data-driven and science-based. Hell, it slaps that phrase on everything from Powerpoint presentations to appropriations requests. But there’s plenty of evidence that the agency dismisses – out-of-hand – outside information; that long-held beliefs hamper its data analyses; that it pays way too much attention to data that is not useful and fails to collect data that is.

Moneyball: For example, here Lewis characterizes James’ assessment of MLB’s metrics:

“Worse, baseball teams didn’t have the sense to know what to collect, and so an awful lot of critical data simply went unrecorded.”

NHTSAball: There’s lots of data NHTSA doesn’t collect. For example, the agency has promulgated a recall system for tires that is predicated solely on the Tire Identification Number. Years of rulemaking were devoted to debating the format of the TIN, popularly known as the DOT code, an 11-character, alpha-numeric code that represents the plant, size, date of manufacture molded into the sidewall of a tire. The aim of the TIN was to identify a recalled tire and it is the only definitive measure to do so.  Does NHTSA require tire makers who recall their products to list the range of TINs in the recall population? No, it does not. Some manufacturers report it; others don’t. NHTSA’s good, either way. The DOT code would be a nifty little data point in any tire-related fatality in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. The agency could use such data to identify tire failure trends, but it remains information uncollected. And while we’re on tires, NHTSA doesn’t require manufacturers to report tire claims if the tire is older than five years – so no data, no problem for the aged tire issues that took center stage following Firestone recalls in 2000 and 2001 and remain a constant source of catastrophic crashes.

How Ford Concealed Evidence of Electronically-Caused UA and What it Means Today

Last month, we reported a Florida circuit judge’s extraordinary decision to set aside a civil jury verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company, based on evidence and testimony that Ford had concealed an electronic cause of unintended acceleration from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – and its own expert witnesses. Judge William T. Swigert’s 51-page decision in Stimpson v Ford also outlines how decades of the automaker’s dissembling to limit its liability in civil lawsuits helped to mire the thinking about root causes of unintended acceleration in the limited context of mechanical agency, even as the electronic sophistication – and the potential for defects and unanticipated interactions between systems – in vehicles grew.

That a large corporation would conceal a deadly problem to protect its interests is hardly news – although the systemic and exacting strategies Ford employed in this case are notable. What makes this story important is how Ford also re-wrote the history on this issue and helped to shape the agency’s thinking about an ongoing problem for decades hence. We have only the public record regarding Toyota UA at our disposal – and precious little of that has actually been made public – so we can’t know how Toyota has assessed its own UA problem; if and what parallels in corporate misdirection might be drawn between Ford and Toyota. But one can see how Ford’s actions back in the 1980s still resonate with the agency today and how it has kept NHTSA from advancing its knowledge in electronic causes of UA that are not already detected by the vehicle diagnostics.

The Emergence of a Defect in the Age of Audi SUA

As recounted in the Judge Swigert’s order, the history of Ford and unintended acceleration goes back to 1973, when Ford’s cruise control was under development. Ford Engineer William Follmer “warned about the risk posed by electromagnetic interference, and cautioned that ‘to avoid disaster’ it was imperative to incorporate failsafe protection against EMI in the system’s design.” In 1976, two Ford engineers obtained a patent describing a design for the cruise control system's printed circuit board to reduce the risk of a sudden acceleration posed by EMI.

Independent Scientists Find More Trouble in Toyotas

A new technical paper from the research scientists at the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Life Cycle Engineering (CALCE) buttresses the findings of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and NASA’s Engineering Safety Center investigation into Toyota unintended acceleration: Toyota vehicles with potentiometer type accelerator pedal position sensors have a propensity to grow tin whiskers that can and do cause shorts in a highly sensitive engine management area.

Researchers Bhanu Sood, Michael Osterman and Michael Pecht studied a pedal assemblies performed a physical analysis of an engine control system from a 2005 Camry XLE, V-6 and an accelerator pedal assembly from a defunct 2002 Camry. The 2005 engine control system included the ECM, an accelerator pedal unit, throttle body, electrical connectors and electrical connecting cables.

NHTSA Keeps Toyota’s Secrets, Part II

Among safety advocates’ most vociferous criticisms of NHTSA and NASA’s investigation into Toyota Unintended Acceleration were the copious black smears over key bits of data and text in their twin reports released last February. These redactions have kept independent scientists from knowing exactly what the investigators did, irrespective of assessing the quality of the research.  (See: How NHTSA and NASA Gamed the Toyota Data)

Alice and Randy Whitfield of Quality Control Systems Corporation, ever the assiduous students of NHTSA’s statistical and informational folkways, went for broke. Shortly after the reports were released, they filed a Freedom of Information Act request for non-redacted versions of the reports and supporting material that was missing from the record. In response, NHTSA publicly released some of the information in the form of less redacted versions of Technical Assessment of Toyota Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) Systems and Technical Support to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the Reported Toyota Motor Corporation Unintended Acceleration Investigation, but continued to withhold other information.

Time to Examine Rear-Facing Infant Seat Safety Improvements?

That an infant seat should be placed in the rear-seat of the car, facing rearwards is an article of faith, preached by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the American Academy of Pediatricians. Manufacturers only make rear-facing infant seats.

On its website, NHTSA advises:

“A rear-facing car seat is the best seat for your young child to use. It has a harness and in a crash, cradles and moves with your child to reduce the stress to the child’s fragile neck and spinal cord. Your child under age 1 should always ride in a rear-facing car seat.”

But Transport Canada researcher Suzanne Tylko presented data at the biennial Enhanced Safety of Vehicles conference that questions the certainty of that policy. Transport Canada has been at the forefront of child motor vehicle crash safety research. In particular, the agency’s dynamic testing has yielded important insights. In this three-year study, TC tested 131 child restraints in 85 motor vehicle crash tests. The vast majority were rigid barrier tests on rear-facing infant seats, secured by a three-point belt conducted at speed of 48km/h; 11 were conducted at 56 km/h; and seven were conducted at 40 km/h. TC also tested seats in offset deformable barrier tests, conducted at 40 km/h. (Fourteen tests involved convertible seats installed facing the rear.)

Pages

Categories

Archive Dates

Follow us on Twitter

Categories

Archive Dates

Follow us on Twitter