Updated: March 11, 2010 2:56 PM | By Ken Thomas,Stephen Manning, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, cp.org

Lawmakers to probe government safety agency's handling of Toyota recalls, auto industry

WASHINGTON - The U.S. government may require automakers to include brake systems that can override the gas pedal in response to Toyota's massive recalls, auto safety officials told Congress on Thursday.

David Strickland, the administrator of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in prepared remarks to a House panel that his agency may require the brake override systems, a fix intended to prevent the type of runaway car incidents that some Toyota drivers have described.

It ensures that a driver stepping on the brakes can slow their car or truck even if the gas pedal is stuck or malfunctioning.

Requiring the system could "substantially reduce the most dangerous kinds of sudden acceleration," Strickland said. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last week the department may recommend the safety systems.

Congress was holding a hearing to examine NHTSA's oversight of the auto industry in the latest congressional review linked to Toyota's recall of more than eight million vehicles worldwide.

The recalls have included more than four million vehicles in the United States and some 270,000 in Canada, where Toyota has been moving to install brake override systems on many of its vehicles.

The brake override system software will automatically reduce the engine's power when the brake and accelerator pedals are depressed at the same time under certain driving conditions." It will be included on most new Toyota and Lexus models sold in Canada by the end of this year.

Safety groups have accused NHTSA of being too cozy with the Japanese automaker while lacking the resources to test for vehicle problems that could be electronic, not mechanical.

"NHTSA has been viewed by the motor vehicle industry for years as a lapdog, not a watchdog," Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator under then-president Jimmy Carter, said in prepared testimony.

Strickland said in his prepared remarks that the agency takes its "responsibility to protect consumers very seriously and will continue to ensure that manufacturers fulfil their obligations to identify and remedy safety defects in vehicles and equipment."

Congress is considering new auto industry reforms following Toyota's recalls to fix problems with accelerator pedals and brakes. NHTSA has tied 52 deaths to crashes allegedly caused by the accelerator problems, and the agency has received new complaints from owners who had their cars fixed and said their vehicles suddenly accelerated afterward.

Transport Canada said it has received 25 complaints relating to brake problems in the Toyota Prius and 33 relating to the models that were involved in the sticky pedal recall since 2005. Of the latter, two relate to fatalities but Transport Canada has not confirmed whether the deaths were caused by the sticky pedal or other unrelated issues.

A panel of the House energy and commerce committee was hearing from former Democratic Representative. David McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group which represents 11 vehicle manufacturers; Ami Gadhia, policy counsel with Consumers Union; Claybrook, the former head of watchdog group Public Citizen, and Strickland.

Representative Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who chairs the subcommittee, said in prepared remarks the hearing would focus on the agency, not Toyota's troubled safety record. He urged his fellow legislators not to veer from scrutinizing NHTSA's performance on vehicle safety.

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 with LaHood and told him the company would "advance safety to the next level."

Strickland, in prepared testimony, said NHTSA receives more than 30,000 complaints a year and has a staff of 57 people to investigate potential defects.

The "defects program has functioned extremely well over the years in identifying defects that create unreasonable risks," he said.

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. "This is not an industrywide crisis," McCurdy said in an interview.

Crisis or not, Congress is considering several reforms that could bring the biggest auto safety changes since the TREAD Act, which was approved in 2000 to help the government spot safety defects more quickly following the massive Firestone tire recall.

Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who leads a Senate committee with oversight of the industry, has expressed interest in "strong legislative action," including requiring a brake override system on all vehicles.

Toyota is bringing the system to new vehicles and many of the cars and trucks under recall to provide an additional safety precaution.

LaHood told legislators his agency may recommend every new vehicle sold in the United States be equipped with the brake overrides, something that would require a relatively inexpensive software upgrade.

Other potential reforms include raising penalties on automakers who fail to recall defective vehicles in a timely manner, requiring car executives to certify the information they provide to NHTSA and mandating car makers provide hardware that dealers need to read electronic data recorders.

The "black box" information could help investigators make their own judgments about what has been going wrong.

NHTSA could also receive more funding. Many legislators question whether the agency has enough skilled engineers who can understand the complicated electronics of modern cars and trucks.

-With files from The Canadian Press


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