Opinion: Five Questions For Ray LaHood

It took ten months. It involved the best brains in the nation. They conducted exhaustive tests. And Lord knows what it all cost. But when it was over, the results were totally predictable. The U.S. Department of Transportation could find nothing wrong with Toyota vehicles that would cause them to suddenly accelerate out of control.

The results were predictable because the country went through the same thing nearly a quarter of a century ago. Only then, it involved Audi. And in both of these cases, each car company was accused of having some sort of mysterious gremlin that would cause its cars to suddenly accelerate out of control.

But there is a significant difference between both investigations. Back then the Department of Transportation blamed it on driver error. Officially, they called it "pedal misapplication." But this time around, the Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, wouldn't do that. He said it was caused by mechanical problems, i.e., sticky pedals and piled up floormats.

Too bad the Secretary didn't have the courage to call it like it is. By failing to identify the root cause of the problem, more people are going to lose their lives.

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[Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty]

In the Audi case, when DOT investigators finally concluded that driver error was the root cause of the problem, they were able to identify a fix. They mandated installation of the shift-lock mechanism that is installed on all vehicles today. It forced drivers to put their foot on the brake before they could shift an automatic transmission into Drive. That eliminated almost every case of sudden unintended acceleration, but not all of them.

That's one of the dirty little secrets of this sudden unintended acceleration problem. It's been around for decades and it involves every single one of the major car companies. While Toyota is being vilified today, Ford is actually number two on the list of reported incidents.

There are several simple fixes that could greatly mitigate the problem.
It's unfortunate that the Secretary is unwilling to blame driver error and do something about it. There are several simple fixes that could greatly mitigate the problem. First off, many cars today have the brake pedal too close to the gas pedal. It's easy to hit both pedals, especially if you have wide feet or are wearing boots. Also, many older people, especially those with diabetes, have largely lost the feeling in their feet. They literally can't feel which pedal their foot is on. By providing greater separation in the plane between the pedals, that would give them better feedback. In other words, if the brake pedal is on a higher plane and they have to bend their knee to put their foot on it, then they know their foot is on the brake.

Of course, so-called "safety advocates" say that the National Academy of Sciences and the scientists from NASA simply missed the electronic gremlins that are causing the problem. They accuse them of not doing a thorough enough investigation and refuse to accept that this could be caused by driver error. And they promise they are going to sue the living daylights out of Toyota. Maybe the Secretary is afraid to take on the safety advocates and the plaintiff attorneys who largely support their cause.

That's why I have five questions I would love to see the Secretary answer.
  1. Why are there no reports of Toyotas with manual transmissions involved in sudden unintended acceleration?
  2. Why is this a problem only found in North America? Why are there no reports of electronic gremlins causing Toyotas to run out of control elsewhere in the world?
  3. Why, if this affects all major automakers, is Toyota being singled out for investigation?
  4. Why does this problem mostly involve older drivers, especially older women?
  5. Why won't the Secretary even consider driver error in cases where sticky pedals and piled up floormats were not the cause?
Ray LaHood would clearly like to leave a legacy as a Secretary of Transportation who truly improved public safety. Here's an opportunity for him to tackle a problem that could show very quick results.

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