Two weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. government analysis of black box data from Toyota cars revealed that the “sudden acceleration” problem so widely reported in the media was actually a problem with drivers who couldn’t tell their left from their right and stomped the accelerator instead of the brake. If true, that would support claims made by the demonized auto maker based on its internal investigation.
But there’s no official Department of Transportation report to that effect — the Journal story is based on leaked information which has been denied by some government apparatchiks.
Now a recently retired National Highway Traffic Safety Administration official says that’s no accident — the government is sitting on the inconvenient data.
Senior officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation have at least temporarily blocked the release of findings by auto-safety regulators that could favor Toyota Motor Corp. in some crashes related to unintended acceleration, according to a recently retired agency official.
George Person, who retired July 3 after 27 years at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in an interview that the decision to not go public with the data for now was made over the objections of some officials at NHTSA.
“The information was compiled. The report was finished and submitted,” Mr. Person said. “When I asked why it hadn’t been published, I was told that the secretary’s office didn’t want to release it,” he added, referring to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
How can I say the data is “inconvenient”? Mr. Person thinks the NHTSA might be concerned about looking too cozy with a car maker — a relationship of which it has been accused in the past. But there might be another reason. Remember … the federal government is now in the automobile business as a direct competitor with Toyota through General Motors, and heavily invested in the reorganization of Chrysler, another rival to the Japanese car maker. Any data that might exonerate a company of manufacturing defects would obviously be inconvenient for its competitors.
Basically, it’s a lot like letting McDonald’s preside over the regulation of Burger King, including assessments of the safety of the competing brand’s products.
The thing is … No matter how definitive or tentative the DOT data ultimately turns out to be, how is the federal government’s relationship with the auto industry anything other than highly suspicious and open to gaming?