Did Toyota Sway Traffic Safety Regulators?

The revolving door between Wall Street, the Treasury Dept., and the Fed is cited as a big reason for the lax oversight of the banks that brought us the credit crisis. Did the same problem prevent Toyota Motor (TM) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from understanding the true scope of acceleration problems in the automaker's cars and trucks dating back to 2004?

A Bloomberg News review of court and government records shows at least four U.S. investigations into unintended acceleration in engine speeds of Toyota cars and trucks were ended with the help of two former regulators hired by the automaker, long before Toyota's expensive worldwide recall became news in late January. Christopher Tinto, vice-president for regulatory affairs in Toyota's Washington office, and Christopher Santucci, who works for Tinto, joined Toyota directly from NHTSA—Tinto in 1994 and Santucci in 2003—and both represented the world's biggest automaker on controversial safety cases.

While all automakers have employees who handle issues with NHTSA, Toyota may be alone among the major companies in employing former agency staffers to do so. Spokesmen for General Motors (GM), Ford Motor (F), Chrysler, and Honda Motor (HMC) all say their companies have no ex-NHTSA people who deal with the agency on defects. "Toyota bamboozled NHTSA or NHTSA was bamboozled by itself," says Joan Claybrook, an auto safety advocate and former NHTSA administrator in the Carter Administration. "I think there is going to be a lot of heat on NHTSA over this."

On Feb. 16, NHTSA Administrator David L. Strickland ordered Toyota to release documents that show when it became aware of safety issues related to malfunctioning accelerators and floor mats pinning down gas pedals. Three congressional committees have scheduled hearings on the carmaker's recall, though Toyota President Akio Toyoda has so far declined to testify. Problems with Toyota and Lexus models have been tied to as many as 34 deaths from 2004 to 2009, and the recall has since widened, for a total of more than 8 million cars, to include possible brake problems with the Prius hybrid.

U.S. regulators say Toyota hasn't gotten off easily. In an e-mailed response to questions about possible influence of former NHTSA employees on the agency's Toyota decisions, Transportation Dept. spokeswoman Olivia Alair said NHTSA "currently has three open investigations involving Toyota and is monitoring two major safety recalls involving Toyota vehicles. NHTSA's record reflects that safety is its singular priority."

Toyota says there was nothing untoward about the roles played by Tinto and Santucci, neither of whom was available for comment. "Anything Mr. Tinto and Mr. Santucci did was in the interest of full disclosure, transparency and openness with regulators and safety experts," Toyota spokeswoman Martha Voss said in an e-mailed statement. "Their actions have been consistent with our efforts to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards in all of our legal and regulatory practices. Their paramount concern was for the safety of every single owner of one of our vehicles."

The four probes the Toyota aides helped end involved complaints that the unintended acceleration was caused by flaws in the vehicles' electronic throttle systems. Toyota has denied that the system is a problem. Transportation Dept. Secretary Ray LaHood said on Feb. 3 that NHTSA is reviewing the electronics.

NHTSA opened eight investigations of unintended acceleration of Toyota vehicles from 2003 to 2010, according to Safety Research & Strategies, a Rehoboth (Mass.) group that gathers data from NHTSA and other sources for plaintiff's attorneys and consumers. Three of the probes resulted in recalls for floor mats. Five were closed, meaning NHTSA found no evidence of a defect. In four of the five cases that were closed, Tinto and Santucci worked with NHTSA on Toyota's responses to the consumer complaints the agency was investigating, agency documents show.

The first case where NHTSA records show the involvement of Tinto and Santucci dealt with unanticipated acceleration by 2002 and 2003 Toyota Camrys and Solaras and began in March 2004. The safety agency decided to open a preliminary investigation to determine "if the throttle control system could be the cause of vehicle surge or unwanted acceleration."

Toyota had identified 114 cases where that was a potential issue. But after Santucci and Tinto met with NHTSA officials, the inquiry was narrowed to 11 incidents that resulted in five crashes, according to a deposition of Santucci in a later lawsuit (still pending) filed on behalf of the family of a Michigan woman who was killed in an April 2008 accident involving suspected acceleration problems with a Camry. Investigators back in 2004 decided to focus on cases of acceleration that lasted less than one second and those where the brake could still be used to control the vehicle.

In those instances the Transportation Dept. reasoned the cause was most likely to be mechanical or electronic in nature, rather than human error. The investigation was closed in July 2004 because of lack of evidence, agency records show.

The same pattern repeated itself in 2005 and 2006. Complaints by Toyota owners over accelerator problems made their way to U.S. traffic safety regulators. Toyota's Tinto wrote letters to NHTSA officials. ("No evidence of a system or component failure was found and the vehicles were operating as designed," Tinto wrote to regulators in 2005.) The agency ended probes in both cases in a matter of months. A 2008 federal investigation lasted eight months. Toyota had identified 478 incidents of engine-speed increases of Toyota Tacoma pickup trucks even when the gas pedal wasn't pushed. The NHTSA pursued no regulatory action.

Did the fact that Toyota had former traffic safety regulators on its payroll make a difference? The NHTSA decisions on Toyota weren't necessarily biased just because former agency people were involved, says Sidney Shapiro, a law professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "I'm not sure regulators set out to say 'I'm going to give a special deal to my old friends in the auto industry,' " he says. "But what happens is it just sort of deteriorates because these are the only people you talk to."

With Angela Greiling Keane in Washington, Alan Ohnsman in Los Angeles, Andrew Harris in Chicago, and Makiko Kitamura in Tokyo

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