Top Ten Reasons We’ll Miss Ray LaHood

We knew as far back as October 2011 that Ray LaHood was only going to be a one-term Secretary of Department of Transportation. And yesterday, he announced his imminent departure. Ray LaHood is a brilliant politician – all confidence and certainty, a loud combination of consumer-tough-guy-bluster-and-chamber-of-commerce-boosterism. He wasn’t afraid to take public stands no matter how misguided – we’ll give him that.

Admittedly, we are not close observers of the totality of LaHood’s activities. But we have traced LaHood’s fingerprints on technologically-rooted safety problems, and they have been a source of grim amusement. Without further introduction, we give you: SRS’s Top Ten Reasons We’ll Miss Ray LaHood

1. Top Illeist in the Obama Administration

An illeist is someone who refers to him or herself in the third person.

Like Ray telling PBS interviewer Gwen Ifill: “I think that Mr. Toyoda wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Ray LaHood calling him and our people going to Japan and telling them this is serious.” Or, Ray telling NPR talk show host Diane Rehm “Diane, you and I have had discussions about airline safety before on your show and you know that nobody cares as much about safety as Ray LaHood.”

Why does a person talk about himself that way? If you are under three years old, pediatricians considered a linguistic quirk of toddlerhood. If you are over thirty, psychologists consider it a narcissistic personality trait.

Move over, famous illeists, Richard Nixon, Herman Cain, Jimmy in Seinfeld and every professional athlete – and make room on the bench for Mister Ray LaHood. 

2. Outstanding Projectionist

When Ray LaHood is annoyed – hoo-boy, don’t you know it. In February 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released two reports purporting to resolve the question of whether electronics could be the source of Toyota Unintended Acceleration complaints. The agency kept a very tight lid on their release, handing them out to select journalists only an hour before the press conference. Both reports were lengthy, dense and highly redacted. But, writers gotta write and deadlines don’t move. Then Ray made the news show rounds complaining that the media hadn’t read the report. We read the reports, and re-read them, and we know, after listening to Ray’s characterization of its contents, that Ray did not read the reports, either.

Maybe in retirement, he’ll get around to it.

3. Undeterred by Facts

“The jury is back,” he announced. “The verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas. Period.”

This pronouncement, more than any Ray LaHood made in his four-year tenure, really fried our butts.

The twin reports, 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, actually said:

“Due to system complexity which will be described and the many possible electronic hardware and software systems interactions, it is not realistic to attempt to ‘prove’ that the ETCS-i cannot cause UAs. Today’s vehicles are sufficiently complex that no reasonable amount of analysis or testing can prove electronics and software have no errors. Therefore, absence of proof that the ETCS-i has caused a UA does not vindicate the system.”

The latter report, by the NASA Engineering Safety Center showed that there were several scenarios in which engine speed can be increased, RPMs can surge, and the throttle can be opened to various degrees in contradiction to the driver’s command, and not set a Diagnostic Trouble Code (DTC). Among those causes of electronic malfunction in some Toyota vehicles the investigators found were tin whiskers in the Accelerator Pedal Position Sensor (APPS) of potentiometer-type pedals. The NESC and NHTSA teams did not engage independent engineers with expertise in vehicle engine management design, validation and testing to assist them, they allowed Toyota and Exponent to guide this research. To boot, the lauded space agency never examined components from any vehicles that experienced high-speed UA events – the very focus of the lengthy technical tome. 

LaHood’s willingness to elide the facts in favor of a sound-bite that puts the matter to rest hurt every Toyota owner.

 4. Effective Policymaker

When you are at the tippy-top of the organizational chart, you have a lot of power to make big societal changes, and no one did it better than Ray LaHood. Take distracted driving. Any ordinary Cabinet-level bureaucrat would convene a few summits, issue some reports and call it a day. Not Ray. He personally drove around the D.C. suburbs wagging his finger at drivers talking on their cell phones.

“What I’ve been doing is kind of honking at somebody if I see him on a cellphone,” he told WTOP, as a way of “taking personal responsibility” to reduce driver distractions.

That bristly-browed dude who was distracting you from your conversation with all that honking? Yeah, that was Ray.

5. Independent!

When the Boeing Dreamliner began to attract the sort of attention from regulators in the U.S. and Japan that most airlines would rather avoid, the Federal Aviation Administration and its counterparts in Japan – where 35 percent of the aircraft was manufactured – began to investigate. The fleet had been plagued by a series of failures, but the biggest questions rested on the safety of the Dreamliner’s lithium-ion batteries, which were the source of one on-board fire. Countries around the world agreed to ground the Dreamliner, and Japanese officials expressed grave concern. But not Ray. He went in the opposite direction, vouching for the Dreamliner’s safety to anyone with a pen, a camera or a microphone.

More recently, he defended his wholly unsupported observations to the Chicago Sun-Times:

“People know that I get up every day and think about safety and I think my record over four years shows that,” he said.

Ray may indeed think about safety every day. He certainly talked a lot about safety. Pushing prudent technologically-based policy to ensure safety? Not so much.

6. Most. Transparent. Evah.

Ray LaHood loved talking about transparency – at his confirmation hearing, at budget hearings, at Congressional hearings about airline fees, business flight plans, about Unintended Acceleration in Toyotas. And yet, the more X-Ray talked about transparency, the less information the public seemed to get. Documents associated with high-profile fines against automakers – absent from the public files. Routine pieces of investigation files – missing. NHTSA’s best-in-the-universe technical assessment of Toyota’s Unintended Acceleration problem – smeared with so much black ink, the technical community could not make heads or tails of what NHTSA and its partners at NASA did. Safety Research & Strategies was forced to take the DOT to court three times to get information that should have been readily available.

7. Charts a Clear Course

Ray LaHood’s determination to assure the public that a product was a safe – before a safety investigation was closed, or before it even got off the ground, was not only bad form, it set up a scenario in which investigators didn’t have much room to disagree. We refer you to Everybody Loves Raymond.

8. Firm, But Flexible

In February 2010, as the Toyota Unintended Acceleration problem continued to make news, Ray testified before a House Appropriations Committee subcommittee, that everybody should stop driving their Toyotas:

“My advice is, if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it,” he said at the 10 a.m. hearing. “Take it to a Toyota dealer because they believe they have a fix for it.”

He quickly clarified to reporters after the hearing that he only meant that owners shouldn’t delay in seeking the recall remedy, but Toyota’s stock dropped six percent on the news. He never made that mistake again and spent the rest of his career over-correcting it.

9. Transportation Salesman Extraordinaire

Board a Dreamliner! Buy a Volt! Everything’s safe! A year after telling everybody to park their Toyotas, Ray announced that he had persuaded his daughter to buy a Toyota Sienna.

He seemed to regard defects as an opportunity to make a sale for some manufacturer. We would have preferred a Secretary of Transportation who promoted safety, instead of specific makes and models.  

10. A Legend in His Own Mind

Ray LaHood is nothing, if not modest. On the occasion of his retirement from the DOT, he told the Associated Press: 

“I have had a good run. I’m one of these people who believe that you should go out while they’re applauding.”

Hey, Ray — you weren’t all bad. You championed of high-speed rail, cycling and walking and presided over strict new fuel economy standards. Distracted driving is a problem, and those fines you levied against the airlines for delays helped to focus the industry’s attention on better performance.

But your failure to take steps to address the technological challenges facing the auto regulators leaves us unable to join whatever audience is applauding in your head. You managed the Toyota Unintended Acceleration problem politically – at the expense of any meaningful technical management of the defect. That has set NHTSA – already way behind the curve – back by years. Consumers, who are now the failsafe for every bad yaw sensor, steering angle sensor, accelerator pedal position sensor or ECM goof-up that causes today’s electronically managed vehicles to accelerate out of control when you are trying to park, come to a dead stop on the highway, or go right, when you tell it to go straight, are the beneficiaries of your legacy. You have left them vulnerable — economically, physically, and – if you’ve ever talked to a driver who has experienced one of these maladies – mentally.

So, on their behalf, we say: God speed Ray – and let’s send you off with the sound on one hand clapping.