The American People v. Toyota

For months the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is part of the Department of Transportation, had been receiving complaints from customers and police agencies across the nation about “sticking accelerators” on Toyota Motor Vehicles. They routinely processed these complaints and asked Toyota to investigate and report back on the alleged problems. Indications are that Toyota was less than responsive.


Finally in November of last year, NHTSA approached Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and requested permission for some of its staff to fly to Japan to meet with Toyota executives; permission was granted. The purpose of the trip was to determine whether or not there was really a sticking accelerator problem and, if there was, to find out when Toyota intended to recall its automobiles and fix them?

In the history of the agency I know of no other time when federal regulators went “hat in hand” to an auto manufacturer, at home or abroad, and begged them to make a safety recall of  a defective motor vehicle system. During the three years when I was the Administrator of NHTSA it was not unusual to recall nearly a million vehicles a month for repair of safety defects, and not once did a member of my staff have to travel to Japan or Europe to do it. Not once did we refuse to conduct a safety investigation because of the, “need to allocate and prioritize NHTSA’s limited resources to best accomplish the agency’s safety mission.” In fact, I would have fired any member of my staff who came up with such a dumb idea.

The NATIONAL TRAFFIC AND MOTOR VEHICLE SAFETY ACT OF 1966 charges NHTSA with the responsibility to “protect the American public against unreasonable risk of accidents occurring as a result of the design, construction or performance of motor vehicles and is to also protect against unreasonable risk of death or injury to persons in the event accidents do occur … a minimum standard for motor vehicle performance, or motor vehicle equipment performance, which is practicable, which meets the need for motor vehicle safety and which provides objective criteria” to measure against.


It is NHTSA’s job to protect the public by setting standards and identifying and correcting motor vehicle safety defects — including sticking accelerators and sudden and uncontrolled acceleration… It does this by defect identification and correction; by “compiling and analyzing safety statistics and information; and by conducting supportive safety research and development.” If a safety defect exists NHTSA identifies it and requires that the manufacturer recalls the defective vehicles and corrects their faults at no cost to the customer.

Identifying and correcting mechanical and technical safety defects is something the military trained me to do. At one time I commanded the U.S. Army’s Test and Evaluation Command headquartered at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The command was responsible for the “Engineer Development Testing” of all military equipment including – but not limited to — aircraft, helicopters, jeeps, tanks, trucks, missiles, artillery and munitions.

When I was leading NHTSA, we assumed that some auto manufacturers would do all they could to stiff arm us and not cooperate, but we didn’t care. Our job was to protect the public and we had all the tools — or weapons — we needed to get the job done. We could assess substantial fines, subpoena correspondence and records, loose the news media on the manufacturers for their lack of cooperation and, if need be, have the Department of Justice drag the recalcitrant manufacturer into court. On the average NHTSA opened between 100 and 125 defect investigations a year.


Even back then Toyota was a very large and competently run company; but at times it could be difficult to work with. It had a reputation of not notifying the agency of its discovery of safety defects as required by the Safety Act and of not providing completely factual answers concerning the issues raised by our letters and Special Orders. But this was only an irritant, not a failure of the system. I made it clear to Toyota that I was not above knee-capping them and they wisely decided to fully cooperate.

It is the US Department of Transportation’s NHTSA that is responsible for identifying, recalling and having motor vehicle safety defects corrected. The manufacturer’s job is to perform the recall in accordance with NHTSA’s instructions.

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