People who claim they were the victims of so-called "runaway Toyotas" are calling on Congress to quickly pass a new auto safety bill proposed in the wake of the Toyota sudden acceleration controversy. Joined by a coalition of ten consumer advocate groups, the alleged victims held a press conference on Capitol Hill Wednesday to press lawmakers to defy strong auto industry opposition to the proposed legislation.
Among those speaking out for the new legislation was the family of Guadalupe Alberto, who was killed when her Toyota Camry raced out of control and crashed in a residential neighborhood in Flint, Michigan in 2008. Alberto's family has sued Toyota, alleging that the accident was caused by a malfunction in the Camry that made the vehicle suddenly accelerate on its own. Toyota has not commented on the case, citing the pending litigation.
"We believe that our participation here today will help raise public awareness of the sudden acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles and we hope, spare others from becoming victims of such tragic incidents," said Alberto's daughter Lilia.
The Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010, also known as the "Toyota Reform Bill", was proposed by Rep. Henry Waxman (D.-Calif.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in the wake of hearings in Congress this year looking into Toyota's and the federal government's handling of Toyota sudden acceleration cases.
The legislation calls for reforms such as mandatory fail safe systems like brake overrides, mandatory "black boxes" to record crash data, and making it easier to pursue criminal charges against auto industry executives suspected of misleading the government on safety issues.
Notably, the bill would also raise the cap on civil penalties against automakers to $200 million; it is currently $15 million. When Toyota paid an inflation-adjusted $16.4 million fine recently over allegations that it kept the federal government in the dark over problems with "sticky" gas pedals that could cause sudden acceleration, it was the highest penalty ever levied by the government.
"These measures that are being considered are protecting the broader society as a whole, not just the victims," said Thomas Golen, Guadalupe Alberto's son-in-law. "It's not only the driver or the occupants of the Toyotas that are at risk, it's pedestrians, it's other people in other vehicles."
Also speaking of the behalf of the proposed law was Bulent Ezal of Pismo Beach, California. Ezal, whose case was profiled in an ABC News report, alleged that a vehicle defect caused his Toyota Camry to suddenly accelerate over a cliff into the Pacific Ocean in 2007, killing his wife.
"If any members of Congress or auto industry executives had the indescribably frightening and deadly experience that I did behind the wheel of my out-of-control Toyota Camry, this bill would already be law," said Ezal, who has sued Toyota over his accident.
The auto industry has fought to limit the scale of the proposed new measures. In a letter to lawmakers, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers complained of the proposed increased civil penalties and a measure that would impose a per vehicle fee that would go to a special "Vehicle Safety Fund". In its letter, the alliance, which represents most of the major car manufacturers, pointed out that even without the new legislation, automobile fatalities were at "record lows." The alliance also objected to another provision that would allow consumers to appeal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) findings on auto defects, saying the measure was "not constructive in advancing auto safety."
Consumer advocates, such as Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety, who spoke at Wednesday's press conference, say the reforms proposed in the bill are long overdue. "To expect today's NHTSA to adequately regulate the trillion dollar auto industry is like asking a high school baseball team to beat the New York Yankees," said Ditlow. "Toyota alone had annual income of $218 billion in 2008 compared to NHTSA' s annual vehicle safety budget of less than $200 million. The American public has a right to a safe car but has no way to exercise that right unless Congress passes the Motor Vehicle Safety Amendments of 2010."
Among the other consumer groups at the press conference were Public Citizen, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles because of the sudden acceleration issue, blaming the problem on sticking accelerator pedals or misplaced floor mats. In all other cases, Toyota has attributed complaints of sudden acceleration to "driver error," saying its research has shown the driver mistakenly pressed the gas pedal instead of the brake.