A Bus Crash, Litigation, and a Surprising Result: Part II

Editor’s Note: A Bus Crash, Litigation, and a Surprising Result is a complex and extraordinary story involving crash deaths, corporate malfeasance, regulatory gaps and litigation that produced significant results – not just for the plaintiffs, but for public safety. Given the length necessary to do this story justice, The Safety Record has decided to publish it in two parts.  Following is Part II

 

The Wrong Fix for the Broken Recall System

Last month, Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal proposed new legislation that would link car registrations to completing recall repairs. The Repairing Every Car to Avoid Lost Lives (RECALL) Act threatens state DMVs with the loss of five percent of its federal highway funds if they don’t add to their duties checking open recalls for every new and renewed auto registration, and adds to the responsibilities of consumers getting recall repairs done to be properly registered.

So What About the Defects?

In 2010, NHTSA levied nearly $50 million in fines against Toyota for flouting the recall regulations in three separate instances. The total represents the largest single fines in the agency’s history – and, (although we haven’t checked) quite possibly more than the agency has ever collected from any and all automakers in 40 years of existence.

This tough stance on recall timeliness is welcome – but does not resolve the larger issues raised by Toyota unintended acceleration – namely how defects are defined in the era of automotive electronics and how such defects are investigated when they are rare, multi-root-cause, and potentially deadly?

The dribble of documents released by the Multi-District Litigation and Congress so far show that UA has been duplicated by Toyota technicians and, contrary to attempts by Toyota advocates and agency investigators to pass off all incidents as driver error, sticky pedals, big shoes and floor mats, there are instances when reliable technical personnel take the vehicle for a test spin and experience UA with no pedal involvement. In fact, we have discovered that Toyota techs were able to duplicate UA in one of very public and widely debated case – but lied to the consumer about it. (We’ll feature that story in a future post.)

Round 437: No One Cares About Kids in Cars – Still

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board gathered all the government, industry and academic play-ahs in the board room of its headquarters to answer a question that’s been nagging safety advocates: Why doesn’t anyone give a damn about child safety in cars and planes?

The day-long meeting was meant to be a kick-off to the NTSB’s 2011 focus on child safety in airplanes and automobiles, with a special focus on increasing child restraint and seat belt use rates. Note to NTSB: you might want to allocate more time to this project – the lag in child safety regulation and industry practices has been the sad state of affairs for decades. Decades.

First up was the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency defended its practice of allowing children to fly without child safety restraints. Without a hint of irony, the FAA said that such a requirement would result in more people driving rather than flying, putting children at higher risk because the injury and fatality rates for children in motor vehicle crashes far surpasses that those in an airplane.

Product Safety Takes a Big Leap Forward

Just before Thanksgiving, a majority of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission gave consumers an early holiday present, approving a Final Rule that will establish a publicly accessible consumer product safety complaint database. For the first time since the commission was created, manufacturers will no longer control the flow of information about their products. By spring, consumers will be able to report their own complaints and research others via a web interface.

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Be Careful what you Wish for Toyota

Once upon a time, there was a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard for accelerator controls. It was a very ancient standard, written in 1972, when vehicles were equipped with purely mechanical systems. FMVSS 124 Accelerator Control Systems specified the requirements for the return of a vehicle's throttle to the idle position when the driver removed the actuating force from the accelerator control or in the event of a severance or disconnection in the accelerator control system. Its purpose was “to reduce deaths and injuries resulting from engine overspeed caused by malfunctions in the accelerator control system.”

Decades passed, and so did the mechanical systems, into automotive history. The car makers began to seek the wise counsel of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: did FMVSS 124 apply to electronic systems? Yes it did, NHTSA said.

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