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.

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.

Are Rear Underride Guards Overrated?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants to know what you think about its latest technical report on the non-effectiveness of rear underride guards. The request for comments is part of a long, slow evaluation process of FMVSS 223 and 224, which require the underride guards meet a strength test on trailers with a GVWR of 10,000 pounds.

The standard has been in effect since 1998. In 2004, the agency announced that it would be evaluating the efficacy of these standards. The report, a statistical analysis of crash data from two states involving trucks with compliant underride guards found no statistically significant preventative effect. The agency looked at data from Florida and North Carolina and found decreases in fatalities and serious injuries to passenger vehicle occupants in a rear-end crash with a tractor-trailer.

A Better Way to Spot the Tot: Rear View Cameras!

Four years after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tried to take the public education route around the problem of backovers caused by vehicles with poor rearward visibility, the agency is proposing the first-ever safety standard to stem the flow of pedestrian injury and death.

Friday, NHTSA announced that it was a rearview visibility performance standard, specifying what the driver should be able to see, which would most likely compel automakers to install rear-mounted cameras and in-board vehicle displays in all new vehicles by 2014. The agency was rushing to meet a statutory February 28, 2011 deadline for a Final Rule.

No small measure of thanks is due to the persistence of Janette Fennell and her advocacy organization, KidsAndCars.org. Longtime activist Fennell began collecting data on backover injury and death more than a decade ago. At the time, NHTSA refused to acknowledge the problem because nearly all of the incidents occurred in private driveways rather than on public roads.

Is This the Best You Can Do?

Time to gas up the Toyota PR engine. Yesterday, ABC News broke the latest allegations of Multi-District Litigation – that Toyota technicians had duplicated owners’ SUA events in incidents that didn’t set DTCs, and in two cases, bought back the vehicles and swore the customer to secrecy. (Remember that expensive advice Toyota bought in February from the BSG Group? “Portray transparency, open and honest.”) In response, the World’s Number One Automaker sputtered:

Makin’ It Fit, So We Can Acquit

We continue to see a mismatch between the facts of Toyota SUA and NHTSA’s representations.  And our level of concern continues to grow as the agency  makes public statements, issues reports and otherwise draws conclusions without presenting any supporting evidence.

Today, NHTSA Office of Defects Investigation Division Chief Jeffrey Quandt stood before the National Academies of Sciences panel looking into electronic throttle controls and told the room that Kevin Haggerty’s SUA event was caused by a sticky accelerator pedal. His incident is one of the flies in Toyota’s ointment, because the service technicians witnessed the vehicle racing in neutral. (Actually, Toyota service technicians have observed and – at times – replicated other SUA complaints – Haggerty’s incident has just been the most public.) To recap:

15 Passenger Vans: Still Dangerous After All These Years

Saturday’s 15-passenger van crash that killed six and injured eight members of a Bronx church is a somber reminder that the vehicle remains the only one in the U.S. fleet today that is deadly if used as a 15-passenger van. NHTSA long-ago whiffed on recalling the unstable vehicles, instead relying on manufacturers’ good intentions and consumer warnings, and the preventable carnage continues.

The 1997 Ford Econoline van, loaded with 14 members of the Joy Fellowship Christian Assemblies and their luggage, was on its way to a church event in Schenectady, NY when the left rear tire failed on the New York Thruway. The van rolled over, scattering occupants and suitcases on the median.

No Black Box Exoneration for Toyota, Part II

After the Wall Street Journal plastered the front page a few weeks ago claiming NHTSA had “black box” (aka Event Data Recorder or EDR) data to support that driver error, not electronics, was the cause of the unintended acceleration issues in Toyotas, the headline is back yet again following a NHTSA Congressional briefing yesterday.

The WSJ in a subsequent story identified George Person, recently retired head of the recall division at NHTSA, as the source.  (see No Black Box Exoneration for Toyota and Lawsuits Fill in Outline of Toyota Sudden Acceleration Cover-Up)

Lawsuits Fill in Outline of Toyota Sudden Accleration Cover-Up

The splash that retired NHTSA recall division chief George Person made when he told The Wall Street Journal that the agency was sitting on a report that would show driver error to be the cause of Toyota SUA events has been submerged by a new wave of reality, as attorneys heading the Multi-District Litigation (MDL) charged in a class-action complaint that Toyota knew since 2003 that it had an SUA problem it could not explain and its own dealers witnessed some events.

The MDL, filed this week on behalf of Toyota and Lexus owners alleging that the automaker’s SUA defect has caused their vehicles to lose value, shows that Toyota has known, at least since May 2003 that its Electronic Throttle Control had a “dangerous” unintended acceleration problem with an unknown cause. That civil action, and a second one claiming damages for Toyota and Lexus owners who were injured or killed in crashes alleged to have been caused by SUA, cite six incidents which occurred between 2003 and 2010, witnessed by Toyota technicians, dealers and others. The e-mails also show that Toyota spent considerable energy trying to divert NHTSA from looking too closely at the issue. Here are some highlights from the class-action complaint:

No Black Box Exoneration for Toyota

The Wall Street Journal made a splash yesterday when it reported that the US DOT had analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota vehicles in crashes blamed on unintended acceleration and found that the throttles were open and brakes were not applied.  These findings support Toyota’s position that SUA events are not caused by vehicle electronics, the Journal claimed.  The Journal apparently based its report on information leaked by Toyota, because NHTSA is denying any involvement.

Toyota’s efforts to place the story with the Journal seem to be paying dividends –  literally. The automaker’s stock rose 1 percent on the news and reporters scrambled to repeat the Journal piece with no independent sources.

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