WASHINGTON -- An internal review launched by the Transportation Department must determine if the DOT unit charged with monitoring vehicle safety is too close to the auto industry to do its job, the Senate Commerce Committee said in a letter today.
The review of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration by DOT’s inspector general’s office should examine whether industry-government ties have hampered NHTSA’s consideration of possible electronic defects in Toyota vehicles, the letter said.
“Recent reports indicate that NHTSA may have internal deficiencies in investigating certain safety defects, and even worse, the potential to be excessively influenced by the industry they are supposed to oversee on the public’s behalf,” said committee chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., chairman of the committee’s protection panel.
The letter contains the first indication that the Department of Transportation is supplementing investigations by congressional committees of NHTSA’s performance in the Toyota unintended-acceleration controversy.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told lawmakers today that there is “absolutely not” a “cozy relationship” between NHTSA, which he oversees, and the industry.
“In the last three years, we recalled 23 million cars,” LaHood testified today before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The Senate letter also said the inspector general should look at whether NHTSA has the expertise and resources to examine possible electronic interference in Toyota vehicles’ acceleration.
The review also should include whether there is a “revolving door” of employees between the agency and the auto industry, it said.
The letter was released during the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing today about Toyota’s safety defects.
A spokesman for the inspector general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Tuesday, March 2, on Toyota’s safety problems.
Among the recent Toyota recalls were a 2007 recall of Camrys and Lexuses for floor-mat interference with gas pedals; an October 2009 recall of another 4.3 million vehicles for floor mat interference; and a January recall of 2.3 million vehicles for defective accelerator pedals.
Toyota has said that none of its tests have found evidence of electronic interference with acceleration.