Posts tagged ‘NHTSA’

Courts Have Become the Temple of Junk Science

If the Left is really as passionate as they say they are about taking on people and institutions who are anti-science, then they should be dedicating themselves to rethinking the current tort system.  Toyota may be facing $5 billion in settlements due to a defect that government reports and independent studies say is not there.

And recall NHTSA's performance during the furor almost four years ago over alleged runaway Toyotas. Its then-overseer, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, happily participated in congressional hearings designed to flog for the benefit of trial lawyers the idea of a hidden bug in Toyota's electronic throttle control.

When the agency much more quietly came out with a report a year later debunking the idea of an electronic defect, notice how little good it did Toyota. The car maker still found it necessary to cough up $1.2 billion to satisfy owners who claimed their cars lost value in the media frenzy over a non-defect. Toyota has also seen the tide turning against it lately as it resists a deluge of accident claims.

At first, opposing lawyers were hesitant to emphasize an invisible defect that government research suggested didn't exist. That was a tactical error on their part. In an Oklahoma trial last month involving an 82-year-old woman driver, jurors awarded $3 million in compensatory damages and were ready to assign punitive damages in a complaint focused on a hypothetical bug when Toyota abruptly settled on undisclosed terms.

In another closely-watched trial set to begin in California in March, an 83-year-old female driver (who has since died from unrelated causes) testified in a deposition that she stepped on the brake instead of the gas. The judge has already ruled that if the jury decides to believe her testimony, it is entitled to infer the existence of a defect that nobody can find.

These cases, out of some 300 pending, were chosen for a reason. Study after study, including one last year by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, finds that elderly female drivers are inordinately prone to "pedal misapplication." If Toyota can't prevail in these cases, the company might be wise to run up the white flag and seek a global settlement that some estimate at upwards of $5 billion—quite a sum for a non-defect.

Summer of the Shark, Toyota Edition

A couple of weeks ago I discussed media coverage of summer temperatures in the US in the context of the crazy 2001 "summer of the shark" panic, where the media took a below-average year for shark attacks and played it up with constant coverage into the work shark attack year ever.

In 2010 we had another summer of the shark, this time with the fears over Toyota sudden accelerations.  We even were treated with an OJ-White-Bronco-like real-time video of some moron in a Prius who supposedly couldn't find the brake peddle for scores of miles on an LA freeway.  I expressed skepticism immediately that there was really a hardware / electronics problem behind the accelerations, and wondered whether the US government's ownership of Toyotas competitors might not have something to do with all the Senate hearings and government attention.  Eventually, the NHTSA and other government agencies determined there was no flaw with the Toyotas, that the sudden acceleration was merely due to operator error (ie jamming a foot on the wrong peddle).  This happens a lot, as it turns out, and I remember Walter Olson once found a stat that a huge percentage of sudden acceleration cases that make it to court seem to involved people over 70 or under 20.

ABC led the parade on this particular shark attack.  They used "safety experts" who were actually in the pay of plaintiff's lawyers, without disclosing this conflict of interest.  They actually tampered with their tested Toyotas and claimed they replicated the "spontaneous" acceleration:

It is hard to spot the lowest behavior in the affair so far, but that honor can arguably go to ABC and the lengths to which it went to pretend it had recreated the problem.  In fact, they had to strip three wires, splice in a resistor of a very specific value and then short two other wires.  They made it sound like this is something that could easily happen naturally  (lol) but this is an easy thing to prove – and inspection of actual throttle assemblies from cars that have supposedly exhibited the sudden acceleration problem have shown no evidence of such shorting.  So the ABC story was completely fraudulent, similar to the old Dateline NBC story that secretly used model rocket engines to ignite gas tanks.   Its amazing to me that Toyota, acting in good faith will get sued for billions over a complex problem which may or may not exist in a few cars, while ABC will suffer no repercussions from outright fraud.

Basically ABC proved that if you bypass a potentiometer with a resistor, you can spoof the potentiometer setting.  Duh.  The same hack on a radio would cause sudden acceleration of your volume.

So, given some time and reflection, eventually the rest of the journalistic community has brought some accountability to ABC by publicly shaming them for this shoddy journalism.  Ha ha, just kidding.  They just gave ABC and its reporter one of their highest awards for the story

Congratulations to Brian Ross, America's Wrongest Reporter, for winning a coveted Edward R. Murrow Award honoring his coverage of the Toyota unintended acceleration story. The award, oddly, is for "Video Continuing Coverage" rather than "Fostering Global Panic Based on Bullshit Story." Still, a Murrow is a Murrow, right? Let's go to tape.

Ross, you will recall, was one of the driving forces behind the Runaway Toyota Panic of '10, which was later determined by NASA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to have been largely the result of idiots stepping on the accelerator when they intended to step on the brake, and of other idiots talking about it on TV. Ross was one of those idiots. For some reason, ABC News submitted four of Ross' Toyota reports to the Radio Television Digital News Association for award consideration.

One report they didn't submit was the one where Gawker caught Ross staging footage to make it seem like a Toyota was accelerating out of control when it was in fact parked with the emergency brake on, doors open, and someone stepping on the gas. We're told by an ABC News insider that, even though it didn't nominate that segment, the network "acknowledged and owned that mistake" in its awards submission. Good for them! Now let's see them acknowledge and own these mistakes from the segments it did submit. For instance:

In two of the winning reports, Ross quoted safety expert Sean Kane criticizing Toyota and insisting that there were cases of unintended acceleration that "couldn't be explained by floormats," which Toyota had recalled in 2009 after some mats became stuck under gas pedals. What he didn't report was that Kane was being paid by plaintiff's attorneys who were suing Toyota over unintended acceleration cases, and so had a financial incentive to argue that there was more to the Runaway Toyota scare than just floormats. Indeed, in other ABC News segments that the network didn't nominate, Ross showed Kane saying—again without disclosing his relationship to plaintiff's attorneys—"We clearly think that Toyota has a larger problem on their hands that involves the electronics with these vehicles." That position—that electronics were involved—was later eviscerated by the NASA/NHTSA report, which found "no electronic flaws in Toyota vehicles capable of producing the large throttle openings required to create dangerous high-speed unintended acceleration incidents."

Dispatches from the Corporate State: A Study in Contrasts

It is interesting to study the contrast between the handling of the Toyota accelerator problems, which turned out to be pretty much all driver error, and the Chevy Volt fire issues.

In the case of the former, we had public hearings and government threats.  The government, without evidence at that point, demanded Toyota recall the vehicles and stop production.  Eventually, when the NHTSA determined that the panic and recall was in error and the issue was operator error and not with the car, the Obama Administration suppressed the results.

Now, Volts appear to have a fire problem with their batteries.  This time, the government is keeping things real quiet and, instead of exaggerating the safety issue, they are suppresing it

It now appears the fire hazard was first discovered back in June, when GM first heard about a fire in a Volt that occurred some three weeks after the vehicle had been crash tested.

Yet, almost five months went by before either GM or the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) told dealers and customers about the potential risks and urged them to drain the battery pack as soon as possible after an accident.

Part of the reason for delaying the disclosure was the “fragility of Volt sales” up until that point, according to Joan Claybrook, a former administrator at NHTSA.

Demagoguing a non-problem in the first case, covering up a real problem in the second.  Guess which one has a union that supported Obama's election and which does not.  Guess which one Obama bought equity in with taxpayer money?

Called This One

Via the NY Times, no flaws found with Toyota accelerators

The Obama administration's investigation intoToyota safety problems found no electronic flaws to account for reports of sudden, unintentional acceleration and other safety problems. Government investigators said Tuesday the only known cause of the problems are mechanical defects that were fixed in previous recalls.

The Transportation Department, assisted by engineers withNASA, said its 10-month study of Toyota vehicles concluded there was no electronic cause of unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas. The study, which was launched at the request of Congress, responded to consumer complaints that flawed electronics could be the culprit behind Toyota's spate of recalls.

"We feel that Toyota vehicles are safe to drive," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said they reviewed consumer complaints and warranty data in detail and found that many of the complaints involved cases in which the vehicle accelerated after it was stationary or at very low speeds.

NHTSA Deputy Administrator Ron Medford said that in many cases when a driver complained that the brakes were ineffective, the most likely cause was "pedal misapplication," in which the driver stepped on the accelerator instead of the brakes.

As Walter Olson writes of the original overblown brouhaha

Did it make a difference that the federal government has taken a proprietor's interest in major Toyota competitors GM and Chrysler, or that a former trial lawyer lobbyist heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration?

I had more back in July (and here, where I observe that scientific data on breast implant safety did nothing to stop the torts, and is unlikely to do so in this case).  I questioned the US Government's conflict of interest in this matter way back in January of 2010.

By the way, anyone want to reopen the case on that guy in LA with the runaway Prius -- I thought it was concocted at the time (I called him balloon boy in a Prius) and am doubly sure now.  How is what he did, in retrospect, and different from leading the police on a high-speed chase?

When The Government Owns GM...

... the other auto-makers are not going to be treated very fairly.

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.

Welcome to the corporate state, Obama-style.   Not to mention some old-fashioned bureaucratic CYA:

Since March, the agency has examined 40 Toyota vehicles where unintended acceleration was cited as the cause of an accident, Mr. Person said. NHTSA determined 23 of the vehicles had accelerated suddenly, Mr. Person said.

In all 23, he added, the vehicles' electronic data recorders or black boxes showed the car's throttle was wide open and the brake was not depressed at the moment of impact, suggesting the drivers mistakenly stepped on the gas pedal instead of the brake, Mr. Person said.

"The agency has for too long ignored what I believe is the root cause of these unintended acceleration cases," he said. "It's driver error. It's pedal misapplication and that's what this data shows."

Mr. Person said he believes Transportation Department officials are "sitting on" this data because it could revive criticism that NHTSA is too close to the auto maker and has not looked hard enough for electrical flaws in Toyota vehicles.

"It has become very political. There is a lot of anger towards Toyota," Mr. Person said. Transportation officials "are hoping against hope that they find something that points back to a flaw in Toyota vehicles."

The existence of this report is one reason, suggests Walter Olson, why the Democrats in Congress (abetted by the NY Times) seem in an enormous hurry to pass a new auto regulatory bill.  After all, automobiles have been sold in this country for only about 100 years, so every day counts in getting new regulatory infrastructure in place

The recall of millions of Toyota cars and trucks because of persistent problems of uncontrolled acceleration has exposed unacceptable weaknesses in the regulatory system. These weaknesses are allowing potentially fatal flaws to remain undetected. Democrats in Congress are pushing legislation to improve regulation and oversight of auto safety. It should be passed into law without delay.

As Olson points out, the NY Times has bent over backwards to ignore recent NHTSA findings in its reporting. This in particular is the enormously flawed logic of the regulator:

N.H.T.S.A. could fine Toyota only $16.4 million for delays in revealing problems with defective accelerator pedals that left the throttle open after being released. That's pocket change for a company of its size.

Pay no attention to that free market behind the curtain.  The billions of dollars this acceleration problem has cost Toyota in recalls, repairs, lost sales, and damage to reputation are irrelevant -- only fines imposed by the Administration (and torts by its allies in the litigation industry) matter.  And if the same problem beset government-owned GM, anyone want to bet what the penalty would be?  They would probably get a new bailout from Obama to pay for the recall costs.   In fact, even without the NHTSA findings, this Toyota problem is really no worse in terms of incidence rates or costs than any number of other recalls by US manufacturers.  The only difference is the media attention lavished on the problem.

Told Ya

Based on past studies of sudden acceleration problems  (e.g. that the vast majority of sudden acceleration problems mysteriously happen to senior citizens) I predicted that many of the Toyota failures would come down to operator error.  The incentives for operators are substantial, even before tort action, both from a psychological and monetary standpoint to blame their own errors on Toyota.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles involved in accidents blamed on sudden acceleration and found that at the time of the crashes, throttles were wide open and the brakes were not engaged, people familiar with the findings said.

The results suggest that some drivers who said their Toyota and Lexus vehicles surged out of control were mistakenly flooring the accelerator when they intended to jam on the brakes. But the findings don't exonerate Toyota from two known issues blamed for sudden acceleration in its vehicles: sticky accelerator pedals and floor mats that can trap accelerator pedals to the floor.

The findings by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration involve a sample of reports in which a driver of a Toyota vehicle said the brakes were depressed but failed to stop the car from accelerating and ultimately crashing.

The data recorders analyzed by NHTSA were selected by the agency, not Toyota, based on complaints the drivers had filed with the government.

The findings are consistent with a 1989 government-sponsored study that blamed similar driver mistakes for a rash of sudden-acceleration reports involving Audi 5000 sedans.

The Toyota findings, which haven't been released by NHTSA, support Toyota's position that sudden-acceleration reports involving its vehicles weren't caused by electronic glitches in computer-controlled throttle systems, as some safety advocates and plaintiffs' attorneys have alleged. More than 100 people have sued the auto maker claiming crashes were the result of faulty electronics.

Of course breast implants pretty clearly never caused immune disorders, but that did not stop tort lawyers from bankrupting an entire industry on that theory.  So it is nice that Toyota has the facts on its side, but that may or may not help in court, and almost certainly will not help in Congress or the Administration, whose agendas were always driven more by the desire to help domestic auto companies against a powerful foreign rival.

What, Was Ralph Nader Busy?

Per Overlawyered:

Mothers Against Drunk Driving is anything but an uncontroversial organization, as the Washington Times, Radley Balko, and our own archives make clear. Among the bad, sometimes awful ideas with which it has been identified are a reduction of the blood alcohol limit to 0.4 (meaning that for some adults a single drink could result in arrest), blanket police roadblocks and pullovers, the 55 mph speed limit, traffic-cams, and the imprisonment of parents who knowingly permit teen party drinking, to name but a few. Of particular interest when it comes to the policies of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), it has backed proposed legislation demanding that costly breathalyzer-ignition interlock systems be foisted on all new cars, whether or not their drivers have ever committed a DUI offense; it's also lined up with the plaintiff's bar on various dubious efforts to expand liability.

Now President Obama has named MADD CEO Chuck Hurley to head NHTSA. Drivers, car buyers, and the American public had better brace themselves for a season of neo-Prohibitionist rhetoric, nannyist initiatives, and efforts to criminalize now-lawful conduct. It won't be pretty.

Olson has tons of history linked on his site.

Should Juries Be Able to Ban Products?

I have written on this before on the context of Vioxx, but is it really rational public policy to have juries be allowed to effectively ban products, products that both legislatures and regulatory bodies have explicitly or implicitly deemed as legal?  Ted Frank takes this on at Overlawyered in a nice follow-up post on a $31 million jury verdict against Ford:

SUVs are designed to have high clearance to traverse rugged terrain.
This raises the center of gravity and affects the handling: it's a
known tradeoff of the laws of physics. There are a wide variety of
tests of varying degrees of scientific merit one can use to suggest a
vehicle is "too prone" to roll over, and plaintiffs have the benefit of
cherry-picking which tests to apply to which vehicles. You'll find lots
of lawyers complaining that the Bronco II allegedly responded poorly in
"J-turn tests", where the steering wheel is turned 330 degrees in one
third of a second and held there for another 4.67 seconds. Ford
designed the Explorer to pass the J-turn test to take away this claim,
and the trial lawyers started using different methodologies to claim
that the Explorer was too prone to roll over.

Empirically, however, the Bronco doesn't roll over more than several
other SUVs on the market, which is why NHTSA, in both the Bush I and
Clinton administrations, refused to recall the Bronco when the
plaintiffs' bar asked it to. When I say Ford was held liable for
producing an SUV, I'm not spinning: it was because it was held liable
for producing an SUV.

Moreover, a vehicle should be viewed in totality: an auto that is
more likely to roll over may be safer in other particulars that more
than compensate for that increased propensity. So I question the
premise. One can't change the rollover propensity without creating a
different vehicle entirely. The vehicle should be viewed holistically,
and holistically, the Bronco is a safe car when used as designed.

Perhaps we as a society would be better off taking the nanny-state
step of banning SUVs, forbidding people from wildnerness driving
because too many drivers don't know how to drive SUVs in highway
conditions, but that's a decision that not only would end the American
auto industry, but should be made other than by a 12-person jury of
laypeople. This vehicle rolled over because the driver drove off the

I had similar thoughts about the Vioxx cases:

Anyway, the point of this post is that this verdict represents a very dangerous assault on individual choice.  Recognize that there are many, many activities in life where individuals are presented with the following choice:

If I choose to do X, my life will be improved in some way but I may statiscally increase my chance of an early death.

may react at first to say that "I would never risk death to improve my
life", but likely you make this choice every day.  For example, if you
drive a car, you are certainly increasing your chance of early death
via a auto accident, but you accept this risk because driving allows
you to get so much more done in your life (vs. walking).  If you ride a
bike, swim, snow ski, roller blade, etc. you are making this choice.
Heck, everyone on the California coast is playing Russian Roulette with
an earthquake in exchange for a great climate, beautiful scenery, and
plentiful jobs.

The vast majority of drugs and medical therapies carry this same
value proposition:  A drug will likely improve or extend your life in
some way but carries a statistical chance of inducing a side effect
that is worse than the original problem, up to and including death.
The problem is that we have structured a liability system in this
country such that the few people who evince the side effects can claim
more money in damages than the drug was worth to all the people it
helped.  For example, if a drug helps 999 people, but kills the
thousandth, and that thousandth person's family is awarded $253 million
in damages (as in this case), the drug is never going to be put on the
market again.  Even if the next 1000 people sign a paper saying we are
willing to take the one-in-a-thousand risk to relieve the pain that is
ruining our lives, they still are not going to get the drug because the
drug companies know that some Oprah-loving jury will buy the argument
that they did not understand the risk they were taking and award the
next death another quarter of a billion dollars....

By the way, have you noticed the odd irony here?  Robert Ernst (the
gentleman who died in the Vioxx case) is assumed, both by the FDA and
the litigation system, to be unable to make informed decisions about
risk and his own health.  But a jury of 12 random people who never
experienced his pain can make such decisions for him?  And us?

Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution said it even more succinctly:

How did we arrive at a system in which 12 random Texans are assigned
responsibility for evaluating the scientific merits of statistical evidence of
this type, weighing the costs and benefits, and potentially
a productive blue-chip American company into bankruptcy protection?