Gov't may seek more authority on vehicle safety

WASHINGTON (AP) - Government vehicle safety regulators may seek
greater authority to investigate defects in cars and trucks and are
weighing a range of new safety requirements in response to Toyota's
recall of more than 8 million vehicles over brake and acceleration
problems.
David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration, said Thursday his agency will take a "hard look"
at the power it has to set safety standards for automakers. Current
authority, acquired in the 1960s and 1970s, may not be enough to
oversee the technology used in modern vehicles, he said.
But one lawmaker at a House hearing said the agency's problems
seem to have more to do with "ineptitude" and lack of money than
with insufficient powers. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said the
agency's response to the Toyota recalls had been sluggish after
"years of stagnation in funding."
Strickland told the panel it was unclear whether the agency can
regulate "in a way that allows the auto industry to build and sell
safe products that the consumer wants to drive."
The government may also require automakers to include brake
override systems, a fix intended to prevent the type of runaway car
incidents that some Toyota drivers have described, Strickland said.
It would ensure that a driver stepping on the brakes can slow the
vehicle even if the gas pedal is stuck or malfunctioning.
Strickland said the agency will consider mandating event data
recorders, or vehicle "black boxes," which typically record data
about whether the brake or accelerator pedals were depressed at the
time of a crash. About 60 percent of vehicles already have the
technology. He also vowed to look closely at push-button start and
stop technologies to ensure that drivers can easily turn their cars
off during an emergency.
Thursday's hearing of a panel of the House Energy and Commerce
Committee was the fourth in Congress related to Toyota's massive
recalls for problems with faulty gas pedals and brake problems. The
committee was focused on the transportation safety agency's
oversight of the auto industry, which has been criticized for being
too lax on automakers.
Under questioning from lawmakers, Strickland defended his
agency's handling of the Toyota recalls and took exception to
criticism that it is a "lapdog" of the industry, noting it opened
eight investigations into reports of sudden unintended acceleration
in Toyotas.
"I don't see Toyota as an indicative example of failure,"
Strickland said. "I see it as NHTSA doing its job."
Along with reviewing its authority, Strickland said, his agency
is seeking 66 new employees to bolster its safety work. The agency
will also review its ethics standards following claims that many
former staffers head directly to automakers after they leave their
jobs.
Congress is considering legislation following Toyota's recalls.
Strickland's agency has tied 52 deaths to crashes allegedly caused
by accelerator problems, and received new complaints from owners
who had their cars fixed and said their vehicles suddenly
accelerated afterward.
The Transportation Department has defended its work in policing
the auto industry, noting that it dispatched safety officials to
Japan late last year to urge the company to take safety concerns
seriously. Toyota President Akio Toyoda recently met Transportation
Secretary Ray LaHood and told him the company would "advance
safety to the next level."
Strickland said his agency receives more than 30,000 complaints
a year and received 10,000 complaints in February alone. It has a
staff of 57 people to investigate potential defects. He said the
program has worked well in finding "unreasonable risks."
But a former administrator of the agency, Joan Claybrook,
testified that it is understaffed, underfunded and lacks the power
to hold automakers accountable. Claybrook, who headed the agency
during the Carter administration, proposed raising fines on auto
companies for withholding information involving recalls. She also
faulted the agency over secrecy involving data about potential
defects.
The agency has been investigating potential electronic problems
in Toyota cars and trucks. Toyota has said it has found no evidence
of problems with its vehicles' electronic throttle controls but is
also studying the issue.
Automakers point to declines in highway fatalities and the use
of safety technology such as anti-rollover electronic stability
control as signs of safety improvements on the road. "By every
single measure, these vehicles are dramatically safer," said
former Rep. David McCurdy, D-Okla., president of the Alliance of
Automobile Manufacturers.
Crisis or not, Congress is considering the biggest auto safety
changes since the TREAD Act, which was approved in 2000 to help the
government spot safety defects more quickly following a massive
Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. tire recall.
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On the Net:
House Energy and Commerce commerce, trade and consumer
protection subcommittee: http://tinyurl.com/ye6felc

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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