Strickland Takes Express to Lobbytown

Well, we cracked open our virtual newspaper the other morning and found a bunch of non-news – winter is cold, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s a bully, and such. On the inside page, however, was a non-news story of particular interest: Former NHTSA Administrator David Strickland is leaving public service to re-enter public service as a lobbyist for the venerable firm of Venable LLP, which describes its business thus:

 "As the federal government’s regulatory reach expands, it is more important than ever to have a finger on the pulse of legislative and executive branch decision makers in Washington. Long recognized as one of the capitol’s leading law firms, Venable’s Washington office helps clients understand how evolving regulatory and policy issues can affect their businesses. The firm also assists clients in making their voices heard as policy is being crafted through both direct lobbying and the management of numerous issue-focused industry coalitions."

On its website, Venable boasts about helping clients clear regulatory hurdles, and successfully defending clients in product liability cases involving asbestos, tobacco, automobiles, industrial chemicals, and consumer electronics, as one of the nation’s “top defense firms.”

In hiring Strickland, Venable described him thus:

“An advocate for public safety on the roads, David has impressed the industry with his accomplishments,” said Brock R. Landry, co-chair of Venable’s Government Division. “From the Hill to the Administration, David is well respected and understands the often complex regulatory process from different points of view. He will play a key role in the ongoing growth of our Government Affairs, Automotive, and Technology practices.”

 

We think that the thing industry will be most impressed by was the pass David Strickland gave Toyota’s electronics in the Unintended Acceleration crisis. Sure, the government fined Toyota to the max. But the automaker only had to pay penalties for failing to mount timely recalls for floor mat interference and sticky accelerator pedals. NHTSA whitewashed the problems of Toyota’s electronic throttle control system. And, it was still chump change to the automaker. More importantly, it gave Toyota a federal cover in litigation against claims of an electronics defect. And, while the explosive Bookout verdict kinda blew that cover off with the conclusion of two respected experts that Toyota’s software was dangerous spaghetti code, (See Toyota Unintended Acceleration and the Big Bowl of “Spaghetti” Code) Strickland, as Robin to Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s Batman, did his part.

Toyota Lawsuits Wrapped?

Toyota is looking to close out its unintended acceleration crisis, with a speedy resolution to the remaining lawsuits out there. According to news reports, the automaker has been inspired by the Bookout verdict to settle a whole passel of UA lawsuits. Last month, for example, Toyota came to terms with Opal Gay Vance, a West Virginia woman who injured her neck and back, when her 2010 Camry suddenly accelerated, striking a trailer. The confidential settlement forestalled a trial set to begin on Jan. 21. In California, orders from judges in the U.S. District Court in Santa Ana and Los Angeles Superior Court opened the door to settlements in nearly 300 death and injury plaintiffs’ cases.

“We’re glad to see that Toyota has decided to approach this in a systematic and forthright way, and we look forward to seeing most of the pending claims settled in early 2014,” says attorney Donald Slavik of Robinson, Calcagnie, Robinson, Shapiro, Davis Inc. of Newport Beach, CA.

The race to empty the court dockets should not be confused with a conclusion to Toyota’s UA technical problems, which continue unabated. SRS took a stroll through the Vehicle Owners Questionnaire database, looking for 2013 UA complaints and found more than 300. They cover all of the classic scenarios, like this one:

"I backed my 2006 Toyota Corolla into a friend's driveway, and then put the car into drive to straighten it a bit. The car suddenly without warning shot across the street (perhaps at 45-50 mph), went over a 6" high cement retaining curbing, and across a lawn into another driveway. All the while I had my foot firmly on the brake (not the gas pedal). I swerved the wheel to avoid hitting a telephone pole, and the house. I finally got the car into neutral, and at last the brakes engaged, and I was able to stop the car avoiding a pick-up truck in the driveway and a tree. During this entire time the engine was loudly revving. Other than 3 shredded tires and 2 ruined rims, the car seems to be intact. I have contacted Toyota and hope for a successful resolution. The service manager at the dealership where this vehicle was purchased, however, said that since it is not under recall there is nothing they can do. Meanwhile I will be fearful every time I get behind the wheel, which I have yet to do!    3 new tires and 2 new rims is a small price to pay - it could have been my life! Had cars been passing by on this normally busy street, or children walking on the sidewalk on their way home from school - other lives as well could have been taken. This was a terrifying event! Judging from all of the similar stories written regarding this make, model and year, Toyota needs to do a recall to solve this problem once and for all." (ODI 10496026)

Will the UK Be the First with a Tire Age Rule?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has had an open rulemaking docket on tire age degradation (i.e., thermo-oxidative aging) since 2003, but will the UK beat the U.S. to actual tire age legislation? Frances Molloy isn’t in an international race, but she is determined to see Great Britain adopt a tire age policy sooner rather than later. Molloy’s 18-year-old son Michael perished in September 2012 along with another 23-year-old passenger and the driver in a bus crash caused by the catastrophic failure of a 19-and-a-half-year-old tire. The tire had been purchased secondhand by Merseypride Travel, which owned the 52-seat coach. It had legal tread depth, but was older than Michael.

“The risk to life from old tires -- no one can put a price on that. It’s been complete devastation,” says Molloy of the impact on her family. Michael, a promising musician, was on his way home after attending a musical festival in the Isle of Wight. “He was only 18 -- there was no other reason for the crash in the inquest -- other than the tire.”

Molloy, forensic crash investigator David Price and Surrey Coroner Richard Travers are campaigning to change the laws in Great Britain to prevent another such crash. In July, Travers formally announced that he would be writing a rule-43 report to alert the Secretary of State for Transport to the threat aged tires pose to public health. Travers’ report gives the Secretary a matched set. Three years ago, the Gloucestershire coroner did the same, after the 2009 death of Nazma Shaheen, whose crash was tied to the failure of a 13-year-old tire.

On November 20, Molloy and Price met with Secretary of State Patrick McLoughlin, who reports directly to the Prime Minister. He assured her a response in two weeks.

Situational Science

A high-profile seat-back failure case that delivered a $43 million plaintiffs’ verdict this summer also exposed major flaws in the work of a renowned researcher, whose studies are often cited by manufacturers in arguing against stronger vehicle seats.

Dr. David C. Viano, a former General Motors scientist, now a private engineering consultant, was retained by seat designer and manufacturer Johnson Controls to testify that the 2000 Dodge Neon seat at issue in Heco v. Johnson Controls was not defective, based, in part, on statistical analyses performed by Viano and his colleague at ProBiomechanicals LLC, Chantal Parenteau, using the National Automotive Sampling System-Crashworthiness Data System (NASS-CDS).

A prolific researcher, Viano has reversed his positions on seat designs over the course of his career, from a proponent of stronger seat backs, and seat integrated belts as a GM Principal Scientist, to a defender of weak seat backs as an expert witness defending auto companies against litigation claims. As a high-profile figure in this area of automotive design, Viano’s current views have been accorded a weight that, his critics charge, is not supported by the quality of his research. 

Viano declined to respond to these criticisms.

The Heco case emanated from an August 4, 2007 rear-impact crash. Dezmila Heco was stopped at a light in Essex, Vermont when she was rear-ended. Although Heco was wearing her seat belt, the 2000 Dodge Neon’s restraint system failed when the seat back collapsed. The force of the crash threw Heco into the rear of the occupant compartment, where she broke her neck, leaving her a quadriplegic. Over the course of the two-week trial this summer, a Chittenden County, Vermont jury found that the seat in Dodge Neon, designed and manufactured by Johnson Controls of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was defective and the cause of her severe injuries. It awarded Heco and her sons more than $43 million.

Safety Research & Strategies Sues U.S. DOT in (Another) FOIA Dispute

Safety Research & Strategies, an automobile and product safety research and consulting firm, today filed its fourth Freedom of Information lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Transportation, alleging that it has improperly held documents regarding Early Warning Reports.

The lawsuit emanates from two instances in which manufacturers allegedly did not report serious injury claims against them to NHTSA, as required under the Transportation Recall Enhancement Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act’s Early Warning Reports (EWR) provision. One crash occurred in April 2009, involving a tire tread separation which resulted in an occupant sustaining a serious closed head injury. The second crash occurred in June 2010, involving the apparent failure of Harmony Lite Rider child restraint, which caused severe injuries to two young children.

“EWR data is supposed to alert the agency investigators to defect trends,” says SRS President Sean E. Kane. “But if manufacturers don’t report complete and accurate information, the system doesn’t work.”

Harmony, which manufactured the child safety seat and Nankang, the Taiwanese tire manufacturer, and Tireco, the tire importer, were notified of these claims via civil lawsuits in August 2010 and November 2011, respectively. Neither, however, showed up in a search of the manufacturer’s quarterly reports to NHTSA.

In March, SRS informed the director of the Office of Defects Investigation Frank Borris, and NHTSA’s Senior Associate Administrator for Safety, Daniel C. Smith, of these apparent omissions. The memo requested confirmation that these claims should have been submitted to the agency via a quarterly EWR submission, and “what actions the agency plans to take.” After receiving no reply, SRS submitted, in May, a Freedom of Information Act request, seeking any documentation that NHTSA followed up with Harmony, Nankang or Tireco, as well, as the agency’s policies and procedures around EWR, and a manufacturer’s failure to submit a reportable incident.  

Honda’s Revenge Against the Pilot Owner Who Sparked a Recall

In the press, Carrie Carvalho was portrayed as a hero – an average consumer who successfully petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate inadvertent braking in Honda Pilots. In March, after NHTSA bumped up its investigation to an Engineering Analysis, Honda announced that it was recalling nearly 200,000 Pilot and Acura MDX and RL vehicles for a mis-manufactured bolt which could send incorrect signals to the electronic stability control system.

But file this story under: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. Three years after the Arlington, Mass. woman first experienced her 2005 Honda Pilot braking to a hard stop on its own from 45 mph, her Pilot is parked in the driveway and her legal case is parked in the hands of attorneys, with no end in sight.

“This is absurd,” she says. “Basically, the fact that Honda is still reluctant to take responsibility is unacceptable.”

Carvalho and her attorney are now contemplating their next move, including filing a 93A Civil Complaint – so named for the Chapter in the Massachusetts state legal code outlawing “unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce.”

Behind the headlines, Carvalho has struggled, yet persisted in the face of a dangerous defect that neither Honda nor the Newton, Mass. dealership, Honda Village, were willing to repair correctly and of insulting compensation offers. The history of the defect itself illustrates the ever-growing catalogue of electronic component failures that trigger unintended consequences, wresting vehicle control away from the driver without warning and the need for a functional safety requirement for automotive electronics.

Toyota’s Motion is Extra-Judicialious!

Two judges have turned down Toyota’s request to bar Plaintiffs from speaking to the press about their unintended acceleration cases.

Guadaloupe Alberto of Flint, Michigan died in April 2008, when her 2005 Camry accelerated out of control, left the roadway and struck a tree. Alberto was known as a cautious driver; the 2005 Camry is known as one Toyota’s most problematic UA vehicles. Alberto v. Toyota is now set for trial in February 2014.

In September 2007, Jean Bookout and her friend and passenger Barbara Schwarz were exiting Interstate Highway 69 in Oklahoma in a 2005 Camry. As she sped down the ramp, Bookout realized that she could not stop her car. She pulled the parking brake, leaving a 100-foot skid mark from right rear tire, and a 50-foot skid mark from the left. The Camry, however, continued speeding down the ramp, across the road at the bottom, and finally came to rest with its nose in an embankment. Schwarz died of her injuries; Bookout spent two months recovering from head and back injuries. Bookout v. Toyota is also soon headed for trial in the District Court of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma.

On Sept. 4, Toyota moved for a gag order in Alberto, to stop the family and its attorneys, including West Virginia lawyers Benjamin Baily and Edgar “Hike” Heiskell III, from talking to the press.

“Defendants believe that statements to the media and the release of witness deposition testimony will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing the proceedings and jury selection as prospective jurors should consider only the evidence present at the trial,” the automaker argued.

Time to Call BS: Why Safety Groups Sued DOT Over Backover Rule Delay

Last week, a consortium of safety groups and advocates decided it had had enough of the delay tactics in publishing a final rule establishing a rear visibility standard and sued the Department of Transportation.

“We are going through the motions of trying to put pressure on the system to cough out the rule,” says attorney Henry Jasny of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “We’ve got a new Secretary of Transportation, and to help him along we figured we’d get the court involved.”

The petitioners before the U.S. Court Of Appeals’ Second Circuit in New York includes three organizations – KidsAndCars, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and Consumers Union – and two New York residents who have backed over their children – Sue Auriemma of Manhasset and pediatrician Greg Gulbransen of Syosset. The 2008 Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act was named for two-year old Cameron Gulbransen, who was killed when his father accidentally backed over him in the family’s driveway. It required the agency to issue a Final Rule amending Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 111, the rearview mirror standard, to, for the first time, define what a driver sees in the rear when backing up to detect pedestrians immediately behind his or her vehicle. The law forced the agency to address a significant design flaw – especially in SUVs – of expanded blind zones caused by the vehicle’s height and bulk. Dramatic pictures from KidsAndCars shows as many as 62 children arrayed directly behind an SUV that would be unseen by driver checking the rearview mirrors.

[flashvideo file=video/KAC_62Children30.flv image="video/KAC_62Children30_Preview.jpg" /]

The original statutory deadline was February 28, 2011, but the Final Rule has been delayed four times, and now is on track to be completed four years after the deadline. In one of his last acts, former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood sent another letter to Congress delaying the issuance of a Final Rule until January 2015. (The new Secretary of Transportation, former Charlotte, North Carolina Mayor Anthony Foxx, started in July.)

NHTSA Chokes on Recall Rule

The NHTSA has published a Final Rule on Early Warning Reporting and recall requirements, and we are sorry to say that it misses the mark on a number of fronts. But – it certainly is a very traditional approach to auto safety. NHTSA’s most significant safety steps forward are almost exclusively at the behest of Congress, and the gaps in this bill reflect that Daddy-Didn’t-Make-Us-Do-It mind-set.

These amendments, weaker than they should have been, are the result of 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, (MAP-21, for short) MAP-21 is the first major highway funding authorization bill since the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible Transportation Equity Act – a Legacy for Users (SAFTEA-LU). The comprehensive bill, among other things, could have fixed some significant problems with recall process and made the system more useful for its intended audience – consumers. Instead, NHTSA nibbled at the edges, and, if history is any judge, it will be another decade at least, before the agency makes more substantive changes – or Congress intervenes.  

The New Requirements

NHTSA was considering satisfying the MAP-21 dictate to make recalls Internet-based and searchable by Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), by requiring manufacturers to submit the VIN ranges of recalled vehicles directly to the agency to augment its current consumer search interface, which allows users to look up recalls by vehicle make and model, or by the recall campaign number. Frequently, a recall may not cover all vehicles in a particular model or model year, but ones manufactured in specific plants or in specific date ranges. Instead, the agency decided to require each manufacturer of large volume light vehicle and motorcycle manufacturers to offer their own recall look-up websites, which includes a VIN field.

NHTSA’s “Tough” Stance on Ford Recall – Eight Years Too Late

Well, the agency’s done it again. No longer can reporters call a $17.3 million civil penalty against a manufacturer the “largest fine in agency history.” Nope, now it’s the new normal. This time it was Ford who got rapped with NHTSA’s multi-million dollar automaker swatter, over failing to recall 2001-2004 Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute vehicles to correct an earlier recall repair to the accelerator cable that actually exacerbated the original problem.

Did you follow that? If, not, don’t worry. We’re gonna lay it out in all of its glorious detail.

Like just about everything NHTSA does these days, the path to the fine follows a long roundabout route that reaches its crescendo in a high-profile death. In this case it was Saige Bloom, the 17-year-old driver of a 2002 Escape who died in an unintended acceleration crash in Payson, Arizona on January 27, 2012. Bloom was driving her new used car home, with her mother following in another car, after they purchased the Escape. Bloom lost control of the vehicle, which rolled over. Bloom died of her injuries in the hospital.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, which petitioned the agency to open a Recall Query after Bloom’s death, says that the monetary penalty didn’t go far enough.

“To me, if there was ever a case for a criminal penalty this was it. It meets the requirements of the TREAD act – there was a death,” Ditlow said “In fact, there have been at least three deaths. Who knows how many there are, in reality? There’s an 8-year gap between the first recall and the fine.”

But, as these things tend to go, there won’t be anything as shocking as a criminal prosecution, just a blip on the bottom line. Ford denied any responsibility in the settlement agreement. To quote:

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