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:

A Defect Remedy Delayed?

Well, we guess that the Christmas bonuses at Toyota are going to be a wee bit smaller this year, since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pocketed about 12 hours of profit from the automotive giant for failing to launch a timely recall for flying floor mats in the 2010 Lexus RX 350.

Yesterday, Toyota agreed to settle the government’s claim that it failed to file a Part 573 report to the government within the mandatory five days after discovering a defect requiring a recall for $17.35 million. According to the settlement agreement, Toyota admitted to NHTSA that it knew of 63 alleged incidents of possible floor mat pedal entrapment in Model Year 2010 Lexus RX models since 2009.

That brings the Total Timeliness Simoleans (TTS) Toyota has paid to NHTSA in two years to more than $66 million. Now, Toyota may be setting all kinds of NHTSA civil penalty records, but when one considers that the company reportedly posted a $3.2 billion profit in just the third quarter, one realizes, that by any-pain-in-the-pocketbook standard, this fine ain’t nothing.

In a statement dripping with gravitas, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said: “Every moment of delay has the potential to lead to deaths or injuries on our nation's highways.”

This fine stems from a NHTSA-influenced floor mat interference recall last summer involving 2010 Lexus RX350 vehicles. In May 2012, the agency’s Office of Defects Investigation asked Toyota to review nine Vehicle Owner Questionnaires that indicated a floor mat entrapment problem for the 2010 RX. Toyota then reviewed its records for “additional reports that could indicate circumstances that may be consistent with potential floor mat entrapment.” On June 22, the automaker presented to ODI cases in which “potential floor mat entrapment was possible or alleged to have occurred in the subject,” including a timeline when each of the reports was received,” according to Toyota. On June 29, Toyota announced its 11th recall related to unintended acceleration, for alleged pedal entrapment by the All-Weather Floor Mat, involving the 2010 Lexus RX350 2010 and RX450 H vehicles.

What Got Stuck in NHTSA’s Craw

More than a year ago, NHTSA whomped Toyota upside the pocketbook with a $16.4 million fine for failing to recall 2.3 million vehicles with defective accelerator pedals. It was just slightly more than chump change to billionaire Toyota, but at the time, everyone gasped at the largest civil penalty the agency had levied against an automaker –ever.

As described by Toyota, the so-called sticky pedals, manufactured by supplier CTS, were slow to return to idle and could become stuck in a partially depressed position. Just for the record, we’d like to remind our readers that the SRS has always argued that a sticky pedal has nothing to do with unintended acceleration--which is not to say that this problem isn't a safety defect -- it just doesn't lead to the type of unintended acceleration incidents reported by drivers.  But NHTSA and Toyota have always enjoyed conflating the two, without offering any evidence that sticky pedals cause unintended acceleration events. It gave the appearance that all concerned were actually doing something about the problem.

Double Ding for Toyota

Toyota closes out 2010 by shelling out another $32.4 million to the government for tardiness. The two fines – for failing to recall its floor mats and defective relay rods within five days of determining a defect – were disclosed yesterday.

Three record fines in one year ain’t beanbag. In all three cases – the relay rods, the accelerator pedal and the floor mats – Toyota had recalled the affected vehicles overseas months before it got around to recalling those components here. It’s refreshing to see the agency enforce the law. But penalizing a manufacturer for failing to file a timely defect report only requires counting to five. The agency will greet 2011 with the much more complicated issue of unintended acceleration hanging in the balance. We’ll address that in a future post.

In the meantime, back to the fines. The details were MIA. NHTSA did not say when it thought Toyota had a duty to recall those components. Toyota didn’t admit it did anything wrong. Since the agency hasn’t made its case for the penalty to the public, the Safety Record Blog will do it for them.