The recent Toyota recalls involving sudden unintended acceleration have focused national attention on safety problems that are infrequent, but potentially fatal. Much of the ongoing debate and public outcry has centered on why these issues weren’t caught or acted upon earlier. But while the U.S. has arguably the best automotive safety net in the world, these types of infrequent problems can be the hardest to catch and the most difficult to diagnose – in this case, with deadly consequences.
Why are issues like unintended acceleration so hard to identify? Car problems reported to dealers, automakers, and government agencies every day create a level of “noise” that can make it difficult to identify real trends and rare problems. Many complaints are about isolated incidents, which may be due to driver error, vehicle abuse, lack of maintenance, or variability on the assembly line. The Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) receives more than 30,000 complaints a year; and only about 2,000 in the last decade were related to acceleration issues with Toyota models. So, the key is to identify, as early as possible, when a series of problems points to a trend, and to a real and possibly lethal defect in a part or design.
Consumers Union believes that addressing this formidable challenge demands a coordinated effort by the government, automakers, the public and independent consumer groups such as our own. “Every generation of safety innovation that Consumers Union has promoted – from seat belts, to airbags, to electronic stability control – has required the coordinated commitment of car makers, the government and consumers,” says Consumers Union President Jim Guest. “Our nation deserves an even stronger car-safety net.”
Improvements made to catch and fix these less frequent, but potentially lethal issues should benefit our entire auto-safety system. At the same time we must make changes without losing sight of widespread, and arguably more critical, safety challenges that are associated with significantly more deaths, including drunk driving, safety-belt misuse, and distracted driving.
After analyzing our nation’s current safety net in detail and speaking with many industry experts, here are recommendations that we would like to see implemented, and improvements our own organization plans to make to support this effort. We also invite consumers and other interested parties to participate in this discussion, and to submit ideas and comments below.What the government can do
What manufacturers can do
What consumers can do
What Consumer Reports will do
The government is at the center of the nation’s auto-safety net and is one of the keys to catching new problems as early as possible. Auto-safety standards in the U.S. are enforced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agency’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) handles safety investigations and recalls, and maintains a public consumer complaints database (www.safercar.gov) and auto-safety hotline (888-327-4236), where people can submit descriptions of problems they’ve had with their vehicles.
Even given difficulties in identifying and diagnosing an issue like unintended acceleration, Consumers Union believes government regulators should have moved aggressively to pursue the issue and protect consumers’ safety. Yet various news reports (see articles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times) and our own analysis of documents from the investigation point to a pattern of missed opportunities. NHTSA and Toyota were aware of unintended acceleration complaints involving Toyota models as early as 2003, when the agency received a petition to investigate the problem. But it took almost seven years for this safety issue to be more fully addressed with the current recalls of more than 7 million Toyotas.
(See a full timeline of the agency’s investigation.)
Consumers Union believes government regulators must be better prepared to spot and address similar low-frequency, high-impact safety issues going forward.
Our recommendations include:
NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) collects complaints and data about autos from the public and manufacturers in two separate databases: the consumer complaints database and the agency’s Early Warning Reporting (EWR) system. But both have limitations and the data they provide are not integrated, making it more difficult for investigators to spot issues and consumers to find information.
Public access to this information should be dramatically improved. Consumers shouldn’t have to visit different site sections to see all of this information, or be forced to search it using tools that are less than user-friendly. All complaint information should be visible via a single consumer-facing site. And this service must include intuitive tools that allow users to easily find information for particular models and compare vehicle safety records.
We also recommend that NHTSA initiate a program to raise public awareness and invite more drivers to participate in data gathering. We believe many safety problems are not reported to NHTSA and that public participation in the complaints program clearly needs to be encouraged. Dealers should also be asked to contribute by educating new owners about the complaints program, and encouraging them to report problems. The more public complaints there are to analyze, the greater the chance that rare-but-deadly problems such as unintended acceleration will be identified at an early stage.
NHTSA should promulgate safety regulations to prevent sudden unintended acceleration in all automobiles.
- Require cars to be able to stop within a reasonable distance, even with the throttle fully open. A sustained press on the brake pedal should allow the car to stop in a reasonable distance, even if the throttle is wide open. One method to reduce stopping distances is “smart throttle” technology that allows the brakes to override the throttle. But other methods would be acceptable, as long as the vehicle can stop within a reasonable and safe distance that would be determined by regulators.
- Require simple, standard controls that turn off the engine in an emergency. In many current Toyota vehicles, for instance, the engine is shut off with a single press of the button when parked, but when the car is moving it requires a sustained three-second push. Though that’s a safety precaution to prevent accidental engine shut-off, it’s an action many owners may never guess, particularly if they are panicked. Recently, Toyota announced that it will change how its start-stop ignition button operates to improve ease of use. Ignition controls including push buttons should provide immediately intuitive operation in the event of an emergency.
- Mandate intuitive, clearly labeled transmission shifters in all new cars. If your car is accelerating out of control, hitting the brakes and shifting into Neutral is your best strategy. The advent of gated and electronic shifters can make finding Neutral if the driver is in a panic confusing. Shifters should be designed so that a driver can quickly identify the neutral position and easily shift gears to regain control.
- Require a minimum distance between the gas pedal and the floorboard. Floor mats that entrapped throttle pedals have been a major focus in recent recalls. People frequently use thick all-weather floor-mats, ill-fitting mats, or stack one mat atop the other. So why not design for failure in this case? Simply allowing for sufficient clearance between the pedal and the floor mat, no matter what position the pedal is in, will reduce the risk of pedal entrapment.
NHTSA has the authority to seek civil penalties from automakers and suppliers for a variety of violations. If agency officials determine that a company violated such statutory obligations, the company can be fined up to a maximum of $16.4 million in civil penalties. This amount might be considered by a large, multi-billion dollar manufacturer as just the “cost of doing business.” We recommend removing this cap on civil penalties to act as a deterrent for future violations of the law.
- Give NHTSA more resources.
Consumers Union believes NHTSA is in need of additional funding and staff. In 2007 motor-vehicle crashes accounted for 99 percent of all transportation-related fatalities and injuries. Yet NHTSA’s budget currently amounts to just over 1 percent of the overall Department of Transportation (DOT) budget.
The need for additional funding support will be even more imperative if NHTSA proceeds with the recommendations outlined above, which could put more pressure on agency resources. The agency says it currently reviews each complaint that comes in from consumers within one business day of receiving it. We have recommended that the agency to raise awareness for its complaints program; but this would increase the number of complaints submitted, and add significantly to the agency’s load – particularly if it decides to maintain this one-day response time to all consumer complaints
It is important to make sure that the agency’s budget and staffing for auto-safety and consumer-protection functions is commensurate with the realities of traffic safety and can keep up with the agency’s other priorities.
Automakers insist they place a premium on safety, and we count on them to do so on two fronts: in their products and communication about their performance. First and foremost, their vehicles should be well designed from a safety perspective, with modern safety features and good crash-test results. In addition, automakers receive a steady stream of feedback on service and safety problems, directly from dealers, through warranty claims, from complaints made directly to the automaker, and other sources. This information is critical to identifying and resolving issues – and alerting dealers, the government and consumers to issues and fixes.
Recent criticisms of Toyota’s handling of their recall crisis have focused on both sides of this equation. News articles have suggested that Toyota’s designers and engineers could have done more to ensure safer design and quality control on features involved in the sticking accelerator pedals. News articles have suggested the automaker failed to communicate immediately and fully when problems arose, to its own US operations group, its dealers, government regulators and finally to customers. In recent days, the company has moved aggressively to renew its focus on safety design and quality control, and to address its communication issues. Consumers Union thinks the lessons learned from this event can be applied to other carmakers who may share similar issues.
Our recommendations to automakers include:
• Make more safety features standard
In the preceding section, we outlined a series of safety features we believe NHTSA should mandate in all new vehicles to prevent unintended acceleration in all automobiles. We call on manufacturers to implement these features in their latest designs as quickly as possible. (See our safety feature suggestions.)
But Consumers Union believes manufacturers should go above and beyond when designing for safety, even when not mandated by specific government regulations. Many advanced safety features – including electronic stability control - are not currently offered on some budget cars. Young families and teenagers are often driving vehicles that are the last to get what we consider to be basic and essential safety features. We call on manufacturers to make these features standard on all cars.
We also call on manufacturers to end the practice of packaging critical safety options with luxurious amenities that people prefer not to purchase. For instance, if buyers are interested in electronic stability control for their Honda Civic, they are required to equip the car with leather and heated seats – at thousands of dollars in extra cost. Electronic stability control for the Honda Fit Sport comes packaged with a navigation system – also for significant additional cost. Important safety features should be available for purchase a la carte, if not as standard equipment.
• Share more safety-related information
Manufacturers are required by the TREAD Act to report detailed fatality-related information that reaches them through lawsuits, as well as the number of consumer complaints related to certain components and systems. That information is shared via the Early Warning Reporting (EWR) system. But only the tallies for fatalities, injuries and property damage and production numbers are currently made public. Consumers Union believes consumer complaint numbers should be made public. And we will be looking into which other non-public data points might be useful to investigators and consumers.
Consumers Union also calls on manufacturers to make information from black box recording devices more immediately accessible to government investigators. Most new passenger vehicles are equipped with Event Data Recorders (EDRs), often referred to as black boxes, which record such data as vehicle speed, throttle position, air-bag deployment, brake application, and safety belt usage. These data can help police and accident investigators reconstruct what happened in a crash. But it can be difficult for carmakers and investigators to easily access this information. Toyota, for instance, has only limited proprietary data retrieval tools for their black boxes. Other companies use formats that can be easily read by commercial tools. We encourage all automakers to quickly adopt formats to enable swift information retrieval and dissemination to crash investigators.
EDR information must also be standardized - and much of it will be, based on a 2006 mandate from NHTSA that defines detailed monitoring requirements for EDRs, including which systems should be recorded and for how long. These standards must be implemented in EDRs that are installed in the 2013 model-year cars. We encourage carmakers to apply these monitoring standards to their vehicles as soon as possible, with the appropriate privacy controls – don’t wait till 2012 to do so.
Data from the field—actual owner experiences—is a key component to unearthing defects and safety-related faults. Consumers drive cars on a daily basis, under all sorts of conditions, and are arguably our best real-world automotive testers. As drivers put cars through these daily stresses, and issues arise, they can act as an important early alert system simply by registering complaints and issues with government databases and manufacturers. Indeed signs of possible sudden unintended acceleration issues were reported to NHTSA as early as 2003.
These safety databases are only as good as the data they contain. And active contributions from consumers seem to be lagging. Consumers can register complaints with manufacturers, which are then consolidated in to a second repository, the Early Warning Reporting system (EWR). It is unclear how many individual complaints are registered via this channel each year, since much of this information isn’t available to the public. But since NHTSA gathers a modest 30,000-plus complaints each year, compared to the number of people who drive (the Department of Transportation says 203 million people were licensed in 2006) it’s safe to assume many incidents are going unreported.
Clearly, consumers could be doing more to share their invaluable insights, and helping manufacturers and regulators to spot rare, but potentially high-risk issues like unintended acceleration.
Our recommendations to consumers include:
• Share your information about safety issues
What qualifies as a major safety problem? In short, anything sudden, unexpected, and scary. You needn’t tell the world about squeaks and rattles, or parts that normally wear like brakes and mufflers. But if the brakes totally fail suddenly, if the car races out of control, catches fire, or the steering fails, take action. Fix it and report it.
Consumers currently have access to two venues to register their complaints.
- Call NHTSA’s Auto Safety Hotline 888-327-4236, or make a complaint at NHTSA’s consumer-complaints database.
- Contact the car’s manufacturer. Your owner’s manual should supply a customer-service hotline.
We urge owners to submit their complaints to NHTSA. By reporting your information here, you will ensure it becomes part of the public record, and will be available for analysis by regulators and independent consumer groups like ours who are in a position to identify and take action on broader safety issues. As a practical matter, contacting your dealer is critical to fixing any issues with your car. The dealer should have the most up-to-date information from the manufacturer, and so is as likely to be aware of a safety defect as well as normal service problems. A dealer should be able to help you address an issue, even if it’s one that doesn’t warrant attention from government regulators.
Whether reporting a complaint to a dealer, an automaker, or NHTSA, be sure to accurately state your car’s vehicle identification number (VIN). The information in this number can help experts isolate a problem that’s common to, say, a specific assembly plant or to vehicles built in a certain period of time.
An increasing number of drivers are also sharing information about safety issues online, via owner communities. We recognize that these forums are useful to a growing number of owners, and you should certainly use them at your discretion. But be aware that the troubleshooting information shared in these venues has probably not been vetted; and thus may be neither helpful nor safe. And reporting your complaints in these online venues will not directly expose your valuable information to regulators and other safety experts who are in a position to spot trends and make changes in the marketplace.
• Act on recall information
Consumers also have a critical safety role to play in ensuring that potentially unsafe recalled vehicles are fixed in a timely way. Unfortunately, many of us fall short in this area, for a number of reasons. According to NHTSA, the average consumer response rate to vehicle recalls is 74.1 percent. The response rate is low in part because manufacturer recall letters may not reach all affected owners, including those who have changed their mailing address or those who have bought used cars. But owners who have been notified could do more to make sure recall fixes are implemented in more vehicles.
If you are an owner of one of Toyota’s recently recalled vehicles, or any recalled vehicle, we strongly urge you to fix your car as soon as possible. For Toyotas, call the Toyota Customer Experience Center at 1-800-331-4331; call your local dealer; or visit the independent consumer site that has been specially set up to assist owners of recalled Toyota vehicles.
Consumer Reports’ role in the marketplace is to evaluate product performance and provide detailed Ratings and reliability information to help car buyers choose the best vehicle. We spend more than $3 million per year to buy vehicles anonymously from dealers each year, and put them through an aggressive battery of tests. Our Ratings, evaluations and recommendations are based on extensive vehicle testing and on reliability data on more than 1.4 million vehicles. Our formal testing is done at our Auto Test Center track in Connecticut and on surrounding public roads, and our testers put thousands of miles on each vehicle over a typical six-month period. We call things the way we see them and have zero ties to ANY manufacturer.
Safety is a major focus of our testing. We evaluate vehicles’ braking capabilities on both dry and wet surfaces and perform a number of tests to see how vehicles handle at their limits. We combine our test results with crash-test scores from NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) to produce our overall safety Ratings. In our reliability survey, we ask for detailed information on problems that subscribers have experienced in 17 different areas, making it the most comprehensive survey of its kind.
Given our rigorous testing and survey process, why didn’t we spot the sudden acceleration issues with Toyota vehicles? First, we didn’t encounter any issues with either floor-mat entrapment or a sticking accelerator pedal in any of the Toyotas we’ve tested. The reason is simple: These episodes are simply too rare to show up in standard testing. And they occur too infrequently to surface as an issue in our annual reliability survey. Had we noticed a problem in our testing, we would have contacted the company immediately, as we did when we experienced a perceived brake failure in our Ford Fusion Hybrid.
Consumer Reports has asked the government and automakers to be more proactive about gathering and sharing data. And we intend to do our part to improve our own safety monitoring and increase our efforts to uncover safety issues and communicate them to our main constituents: consumers.
Here are some safety-focused steps we plan to take going forward:
• Expand the safety information on our Web site
Our Web site ConsumerReports.org currently provides a wealth of auto-safety information. It features our own safety Ratings, which incorporate key scores from NHTSA’s and IIHS’s crash tests, and some 300 IIHS crash-test videos for recent models; and information on which models have key safety features, such as electronic stability control (ESC), side air bags, and curtain air bags. Going forward we will broaden the scope of safety information on our site in as many of these areas as is practical, beginning with recall information.
Consumers should not learn of safety related problems via news reports, only to wait weeks for notification by mail of a recall. Communicating recall information to consumers is currently the manufacturer’s responsibility. But we would support these efforts by publicizing recall information on our Web site and possibly other venues.
• Increase efforts to mine public safety information
NHTSA is our main safety watchdog, and we will continue to rely on the agency as our first line of defense. A more accessible NHTSA database (based on some changes we’ve recommended to the government) will also allow Consumer Reports to more thoroughly analyze and publish analysis of consumer complaints.
A statistical rarity such as unintended acceleration is truly a needle in a haystack. So the more people who are mining the available data to search for that needle, the better. Many organizations, including Consumers Reports, reviewed NHTSA’s complaint database in the last few months to assess trends around unintended acceleration. And while these types of events do occur with nearly every manufacturer, we noticed that Toyota had a disproportionately high number of them in our data sampling for the 2008 model year.
If we were able to more fully mine the database, Consumer Reports and other independent groups like ours could do more to support NHTSA by flagging any spikes we see in problems with specific vehicles. Such information would be useful for car owners and buyers, as well as the agency and automakers.
• Gather more information about recalls
Beginning with the online version of our upcoming Annual Questionnaire in April, we will make additional efforts to gather information about our subscribers’ experiences with recalls. We will be gathering this information for all vehicles, not just Toyotas. We’ll ask our more than two million subscribers to tell us if their car had a recall in the last year. We’ll also ask them about the specifics of handling the recall, including how they first heard about it (from news reports, a letter from the manufacturer, or a letter from the dealer); whether they took their car in to be fixed; and how long it took to complete the fix.
We plan to analyze and publish our findings for consumers on our Web site as soon as possible after the survey is complete (preliminary results will be published this spring). We will also share our detailed information with government regulators and other groups that might find it useful. We hope our own data will provide insights that will help to improve our recall system, and increase consumer response rates to recalls.
As in the past, however, recall information won’t be used to determine our reliability Ratings. These scores are based on serious problems that our subscribers have experienced with their vehicles, but don’t include service visits due to accident damage or recalls. It’s important not to confuse recalls with reliability. Most vehicles that have recall work performed never experience the problem. Moreover, despite the negative publicity surrounding many recalls, they are, in general, a positive way for an automaker to deal with a known problem. Having recall work performed is better than driving around with a potentially defective component that a manufacturer refuses to acknowledge.