Record $16.4 Million Fine a “Drop in the Bucket” for Toyota

April 6th, 2010
Lawyers plot strategy

150 lawyers meet in San Diego, 3/24/2010, to plot strategy against Toyota: LA Times.

The drop-in-the-bucket line is from Joan Claybrook, former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) administrator, who loves to comment on matters she no longer controls. Well, it may be chump change for the Big T, but the largest fine in NHTSA’s history will send a loud message to law courts and judges everywhere. So the company’s pain may be only beginning, as hundreds of litigants are waiting in the wings.

Specifically, the fine is for withholding information and delays in notifying NHTSA about problems with sticky pedals. The agency claims it has proof that Toyota knew it had problems in September, but failed to recall 2.3 million vehicles until January, four months later. Full details are here.

While NHTSA investigations are continuing (specifically into floor mats), there may be more sticky issues ahead—and not just for Toyota. The agency is clearly sending a get-tough message to the industry as a whole that it will not tolerate safety violations. Some are wondering whether this response is owing to political pressure.

NHTSA has been on the political hotseat during all of the Toyota turmoil for its handling of the matter and whether it was subject to influence by the company. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who chaired a hearing over the Toyota recalls, last week slammed the agency:

NHTSA’s actions—and inactions—in the years leading up to today are deeply troubling… . [It] didn’t fulfill its responsibility in the past and has more to do in the future.

More fines could be coming for Toyota, but U.S. sales chief Jim Lentz sounded pretty confident when he met the press after one of the hearings.

Trying to put a good face on its unintended acceleration issues (all carmakers have them) and one-up Toyota, GM announced that by 2012 all its vehicles will have a brake-override control. This device would decrease power to the engine when brake and accelerator pedals are depressed at the same time. “Enhanced smart-pedal technology,” they called it. A number of GM cars currently use the system.

Well, Autoblog had a little fun with that idea of stepping on both pedals simultaneously—which is pretty incredible when you think about it.

We’re having a hard time envisioning an event that would cause us to stand on both pedals at the same time, but hey, it takes all kinds.

Tell us: Do you think the NHTSA is getting a bad rap, or have they done a good job? Will its record fine be effective?

—jgoods

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  1. randy
    April 7th, 2010 at 15:53 | #1

    NHTSA is just another example of our government agencies “for sale.” Who gives them a fine? I suspect some of those hundreds of lawyers will also be suing NHTSA right along with Toyota for their role in covering up this problem and resulting deaths that could have been prevented. I know many of NHTSA people and have worked with them over the years, but this issue has really disappointed me. I used to think NHTSA was a reliable guardian of public safety but it turns out they are just another government agency controlled by special interest groups.

    As far as brake/throttle interlock systems go, pressing the brake and gas at the same time is often used with automatic transmission performance vehicles. Braking the vehicle while pressing the gas generates torque that can be used to more quickly and smoothly accelerate the vehicle from a stop or out of a curve. If using delayed braking into a curve, the vehicle can transition very smoothly to acceleration by starting an initial gas acceleration before braking is finished. Note that I’m talking about smaller gas pedal applications, not stomping on the gas.

  2. April 6th, 2010 at 14:52 | #2

    It sure sounds like the NHTSA may have gone easy on Toyota in the past, and Toyota’s hiring of two former NHTSA employees certainly should have given the company an advantage in negotiating with the agency at the very least. It will be interesting to see if Toyota ends up getting hit with more suits and if so, how big those suits are.

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