Congress, says Steve Chapman in a Chicago Tribune piece Thursday, is “accelerating out of control.” Why? Because it’s considering legislation, in the wake of Toyota’s sudden acceleration crisis, to make cars safer.

Carmakers fought airbags fiercely. They fought seatbelts. They resisted even elementary pollution controls and testified in Congress that cars “don’t pollute.” This is an industry that should be left to police itself?

A committee headed by longtime consumer watchdog Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) wants to require brake overrides so that cars can’t take off on their owners. It wants cars to have “black boxes” like airplanes, so that after a crash we’ll know what happened. And it would create rules for vehicle electronics, and that’s a good idea, too, if you suspect, as I do, that electronic interference is at the heart of the problem with runaway Toyotas.

I asked Chapman, a member of Tribune’s editorial board, if he thought Toyota had gotten to the bottom of the sudden acceleration problem with its round of recalls (including more than 9 million cars).

“I don't know if they have or not,” he said via e-mail. “But I think the hundreds of lawsuits they face are a big (not infallible) deterrent against producing and concealing dangerously defective cars. If Toyota created unreasonable risks, it will be liable for an enormous amount in damages, not to mention lost sales.”

I would argue that automakers can and will conceal dangerously defective cars. Let me just say two words: Exploding Pintos. I think all of the Congressional safety proposals make sense, and wouldn’t be a huge burden on Toyota, which despite all its troubles is still making substantial profits. From January to March of this year, the company made $1.2 billion.

Chapman argues in his story that Toyota has “made its share of mistakes” (isn’t that what politicians say when they’re caught?) but “if it were truly deaf to safety, its vehicles would not rank better than average in driver death rates.” Toyota he says, is the world’s biggest and most respected carmaker, so how could it make dangerous cars? And sales are up, so people don’t let safety issues be a deal breaker.

Humility, Chapman writes, “is not the prevailing mood in Washington. Between Toyota’s missteps and federal measures to help the industry, politicians are feeling even bossier than usual. What they are inclined to forget is that mandatory vehicle improvements don’t come free. Those black boxes, for example, could cost hundreds, or thousands of dollars apiece.” He’s concerned about what conservatives call “the nanny state.”

I really don’t see how those things follow. U.S. safety regulation lags far behind Europe, where even protection for pedestrians is far advanced. And if one car is running away, it’s life and death for that driver. Since November, there have been 68 vehicle speed control-related complaints referred to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since November on the 2010 Toyota Camry alone.

Tell Jean Cheever, a Philadelphia-area grandmother, that auto safety doesn’t need regulation. On March 18, she was backing her 2008 Lexus RX350 down her daughter’s driveway with her two grandchildren aboard. The car took off, backwards. “It was moving like a missile into the cul-de-sac.” Cheever said, “It was very scary.”

Cheever managed to stop by hitting a tree (pictured left). The car was totaled, but fortunately no one was hurt. Toyota told Cheever, “[O]ur inspection determined that this incident was not a result of any type of manufacturer design or defect.”

Still Cheever was luckier than Nancy Murtha of Cortland Manor, N.Y. In July, she was driving an identical 2008 RX350 when her car spun out of control with her 5-year-old son, Jake, strapped into a car seat. Her car hit a rock wall, and Jake was killed. She and her husband are now suing Toyota for wrongful death.

 

But didn’t Toyota “fix” that Lexus model with a new accelerator pedal? No, it’s not on the recall list. Despite that, NHTSA’s “Early Warning Reporting System” reports that there were nine death or injury claims through the fourth quarter of 2009 related to “speed controls components” on 2003 to 2008 Lexus RX models.

Yes, I think government regulation of auto safety is a good thing.

Additional photo credit: Crash photo courtesy Jean Cheever; MNN homepage photo: ismet/iStockphoto

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