House investigates role of regulators in Toyota recall

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The House Oversight Committee on Wednesday opened hearings to explore regulatory failures that left dangerous Toyota vehicles on the road years after complaints were registered with the Department of Transportation.

“It’s obvious that industry and their regulators both failed – they had too cozy of a relationship,” says Kurt Bardella, spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, ranking Republican on the committee.

The government has known about the problem with faulty accelerators in Toyotas for at least two years — leaving consumers wondering why a recall took so long. Toyota has now recalled almost 8 million of its vehicles, including many Lexus and Prius hybrid electric models.

In October, federal regulators closed an investigation of runaway accelerators on certain Lexus models, concluding the problem was the result of oversize floor mats rather than a manufacturing defect. After more reported casualties, the Department of Transportation finally demanded a recall just weeks ago.

“There has been no more higher standard set for ethics than in this administration,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood emphatically repeated in testimony today, defending his agency against suggestions that former NHTSA employees who went to work for Toyota may have led to special treatment for Toyota.

Lawmakers, however, have a special interest in looking into regulators’ actions.

“There’s going to be a tremendous amount of questioning about what the protocols are for the regulators when they encounter a problem,” Bardella continues. “This is about making sure that the regulators have the right mindset going forward, that they are consistently taking into account the standards.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Department of Transportation agency responsible for such safety issues, has investigated reports of unintended acceleration dating back to certain Audi models in the mid-1980s. No major mechanical or electrical reason has yet been discovered.

NHTSA receives almost 30,000 consumer complaints a year related to the auto industry. “We take every one of them very seriously,” LaHood said. “We haven’t been sitting around on our hands, when people complain, we investigate.” LaHood added that there are currently 40 open investigations into defective automobiles, five of which involve Toyota.

In testimony today LaHood praised Toyota for cooperating with the recall, and said he was pleased with Toyota’s willingness to provide documents relevant to the investigation.

Bardella denied that Toyota is a particular target of investigation, despite critics saying the reaction to Toyota has been disproportionate.

“The whole point of this is that we need to create standards and apply them equally to everybody, if regulators are not doing that then we have a problem.”

LaHood said NHTSA will conduct a thorough review: “We will get into the weeds on this.”