Senate Panel Seeks Broader Review of Auto Safety Efforts

February 25, 2010

A U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday asked a government watchdog to expand its review of how regulators handled recent Toyota Motor Corp. recalls to include other automakers.

After 16 hours of testimony over two consecutive days of hearings in the House, congressional inquiries into the Toyota safety crisis next moves to the Senate Commerce Committee for a hearing next Tuesday.

Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller and Mark Pryor, the chairman of the panel’s subcommittee on consumer protection, asked Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovell to broaden his investigation, currently limited to the regulatory response to Toyota recalls, begun last week.

The Senate panel wants Scovell to review industrywide complaints regarding unintended acceleration and brake failure in cars equipped with electronic throttle and braking control systems.

The review “should determine” if officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have been biased against regulating non-mechanical components, which may include software driven systems like throttle controls.

Rockefeller also wants to know whether NHTSA lacks the resources to study electronic control systems and whether it has been “excessively influenced” by manufacturers.

NHTSA is a relatively small agency that supporters say is underfunded. A former administrator, longtime consumer advocate Joan Claybrook, said auto regulation lacks teeth, the agency is secretive, and has been without strong leadership for years.

A House Energy and Commerce Committee investigation found that NHTSA appears to lack the tools needed to investigate computerized systems equipped in today’s cars and trucks.

The panel’s chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman, said legislation may be necessary to give NHTSA more tools to strengthen its regulatory abilities.

The agency has come under criticism in the Toyota case.

Congressional scrutiny covers Toyota recalls in 2009 and 2010 of more than 6 million vehicles for floor mats that can trap the accelerator and gas pedals that do not spring back as designed.

Critics question whether NHTSA should have been tougher on Toyota and aggressively pursued consumer complaints about electronic throttles over the years as a potential explanation for unintended acceleration.

Regulators have found no problems with that system.

(Reporting by John Crawley)

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