Thursday, March 25, 2010

Setting the Record Straight About Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration and NHTSA

Letter to the Editor, Pioneer Press, 3-24-10

I have to disagree with Mr. Kotin on a number of issues. Toyota has not issued a recall for anything related to "computer software." Lawyers and engineers studying these issues on behalf of consumers have argued for many months that Toyotas have defects in their computer systems. Toyota has vigorously denied this. NHTSA, which has been slow to act in this crisis, has not ordered a recall relating to Toyota's computer systems.

Toyota, belatedly, has issued recalls relating first to floor mats and then to accelerator pedals. There have been reports of sudden unintended acceleration with Toyota vehicles that have been through the floor mat and accelerator pedal "fixes." In those situations, I suspect that there are problems that go beyond floor mats or pedals. Neither NHTSA nor Toyota has been forthcoming with a satisfactory explanation.

A reliable source for information on Toyota sudden unintended acceleration is Its head, Sean Kane, testified before Congress on the topic of Toyota defects. Its website has a thorough report available:

I also disagree with Mr. Kotin's assertion that "The system works like this: The government recommends a recall, and after much negotiation, manufacturers usually comply and offer either refunds or repairs." Most of the time, the government receives many reports of occurrences and does not recommend a recall-- even where a recall is warranted. NHTSA has a long history of missing opportunities to order prompt recalls of unsafe products; it took civil jury verdicts to expose the dangers of the Ford Pinto gas tank design, not NHTSA. Just an example.

The way to protect the public is to have a strong enforcement mechanism against those who design and manufacture unsafe products. That mechanism should be part governmental and part by private lawsuits to redress harms caused by unsafe products. Our governmental agencies have let us down in recent decades and need to step up to the plate.

The idea of fixing something after it is out in the public domain is inherently less reliable than the manufacturer doing its job right before selling the product. Safety begins with designing hazards out of products; if that is not possible, then the manufacturer must guard against the dangers of its design. Simply issuing a recall notice is no substitute for safe product design or good corporate behavior.

Sincerely, Bruce R. Pfaff, Pfaff & Gill, Ltd., Trial Lawyers, Chicago.