After weeks of ducking the press, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) finally spoke out in public today at a Senate hearing investigating the issue of runaway Toyotas.
NHTSA administrator David Strickland defended the agency's past investigations of sudden acceleration complaints in Toyotas, and strongly disputed assertions that Toyota was able to influence NHTSA to provide favorable terms on recalls, saying "claims Toyota has made about their influence is false."
Testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee, where he worked as an aide until January, Strickland downplayed reports of dramatic spikes in sudden acceleration complaints by Toyota Camry owners in previous years, calling them "unremarkable" because the complaints were comparable to other manufacturers on a "per-capita basis."
Strickland said that NHTSA did open investigations into the Camry complaints during the Bush administration, but was unable to find a vehicle defect. "The investigators did a full investigation top to bottom, regardless of any type of rationale or cause for sudden acceleration and they were not able to find a defect," said Strickland. "If we cannot find a defect, we cannot go forward, we will lose a case in court."
Strickland was originally scheduled to testify at last week's Toyota hearing by the House Oversight Committee, but was prevented from appearing by Dept. of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who said Strickland was unprepared to testify because he had only been on the job since early January.
Today's hearing was in front of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, where Strickland worked for eight years as a staffer and Senior Counsel and where he was "lead staff person for the oversight of NHTSA," according to the agency's web site. Despite his close ties to committee members, Strickland was sharply criticized over his defense of NHTSA's past performance on the Toyota sudden acceleration issue.
Committee chair Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D.-W.Va., called the previous investigations a "major letdown on NHTSA's part and the record clearly shows you stayed away." Rockefeller said the past investigations showed a reluctance by the agency to properly look into vehicle electronics. "They understand floor mats, they don't understand microchips," said Rockefeller.
Strickland was asked about an internal Toyota document that boasted of how the company saved $100 million dollars by successfully limiting a recall of 2007 vehicles tied to sudden acceleration complaints. "That document has absolutely no foundation," said Strickland. "The things they are claiming in that document -- is like me claiming I'm responsible for the sun rising this morning."
LaHood and Strickland were also closely questioned about the roles of two former NHTSA safety investigators who went to work for Toyota's Washington, D.C. office, Chris Tinto and Chris Santucci. The two were able to successfully negotiate with their former NHTSA colleagues to sharply narrow the scope of a 2004 investigation into random acceleration in Toyota vehicles. "It smells bad, it's not right," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D.-Calif.
LaHood said an investigation into the matter showed that the former NHTSA officials did not violate ethics rules because they did not negotiate on issues they were involved with while at the agency.
"It does not appear that they were engaged in activities that they were prohibited by law from engaging in," said LaHood. Strickland added that he planned to run NHTSA with the "highest level of ethics possible." Strickland said, "I don't want anyone roaming my halls at NHTSA other than my employees or a designated appointment where they provide us with information that we need."
An ABC News investigation found that federal safety investigators agreed to exclude reports of the most serious cases of alleged "runaway Toyotas" after the intervention of Tinto and Santucci, who were hired to be Washington, D.C. representatives of Toyota.
As a result, an investigation of Toyota's computer-controlled throttle never examined any case in which sudden acceleration lasted longer than a second or two, or in which the driver tried to brake, effectively ruling out all high-speed episodes.
"Longer duration incidents involving uncontrollable acceleration" were deemed to be "not within the scope of this investigation," according to a 2004 memorandum in NHTSA's files.
The memorandum was written on March 23, 2004, shortly after NHTSA official Scott Yon met with Tinto and Santucci, , according to Santucci's testimony in a civil lawsuit.
"We discussed the scope," Santucci testified. "I think it worked out well for both the agency and Toyota."