San Francisco Chronicle
By Congresswoman Jackie Speier
View the original piece here
If you or someone you love was in a serious accident because of a manufacturer defect, and there was a tool that could record the true cause of the accident, would you want it? Of course you would. Well, such a technology does exist, but access to it has been jealously guarded by some car manufacturers to serve their purposes, not consumers or the regulators who are tasked with ensuring your safety.
An event data recorder - which is very similar in function to the "black boxes" used in airplanes - is a device found in some cars that records critical information in the seconds before and after an accident.
I recently introduced the Consumer Auto Safety Enhancement Act of 2010, which requires that by 2012 all new cars have such a recorder and that all cars currently equipped with these devices have their technology updated to meet new standards. My bill also ensures that event data recorders are readily accessible and readable to regulators. It requires that each recorder meet a rigorous set of new guidelines. Initially, manufacturers will have to spend money on research and development to design recorders that meet these standards. As these new recorders roll out in millions of cars, the per-car cost will be very small, particularly when compared with the benefits of this valuable and proven technology.
As I was sitting in a Toyota recall hearing and listening to the back and forth from Toyota and the U.S. Department of Transportation, it became clear that in many ways the agency was flying blind. Regulators were spending too much of their time wrangling with auto manufacturers on the details of watered-down recalls. Internal memos from Toyota touted their success in negotiating smaller recalls with the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, saving Toyota millions of dollars. It was not lost on me and my colleagues that Toyota had previously hired former NHTSA regulators to lobby their old colleagues.
A study conducted by the Associated Press uncovered that, for years, Toyota had blocked or delayed access to data from the event data recorders in Toyotas. The investigation found that Toyota had been inconsistent - and sometimes contradictory - in revealing exactly what the devices record and don't record, including critical data about whether the brake or accelerator pedals were depressed at the time of a crash. Meanwhile, Toyota was busy trying to explain away all of its problems as driver error.
Event data recorder technology is an underutilized tool for the traffic safety administration. By equipping all new cars on American roads with them, we will empower the agency with the critical data it needs to identify problematic trends and spot manufacture defects, preventing debacles like the Toyota situation from ever happening again.
At a time when the American people are frustrated with regulators caught asleep at the switch, here's a way of making sure regulators are awake and alert.
Jackie Speier represents parts of San Francisco and San Mateo County in the U.S. House of Representatives.