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Consumers Union Calls for Changes in Safety Rules

Long time endorser of Toyota quality and safety apparently missed or overlooked unintended acceleration deaths.

by on Feb.26, 2010

A double standard in play at Consumers Union?

Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports- a long standing endorser of Toyota quality – is now calling for changes to strengthen what it calls the “U.S. car safety net.”

This new emphasis on safety comes about as its April Auto issue is published against a background of questionable practices by Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in controversial unintended acceleration and pedal entrapment issues, which are, allegedly, responsible for 34 deaths in the U.S. and the recalls of more than 8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles globally.

In its annual auto issue – in preparation for months before the now well-publicized Toyota recalls – Consumer Reports endorses the 2010 Toyota Prius as the “best value” in family cars. Other previous Toyota vehicle recommendations have been dropped.

To determine which cars are the best values, Consumer Reports claims it looked at a combination of performance, utility, and reliability for the money, considering total owner costs over the first five-years. The better a car performs in road tests and reliability ratings and the less it costs to own, the greater its value.

The magazine, with more than 7 million print and online subscribers, is notably silent in its endorsement of Prius about the current recall of 2010 Prius models for braking failures, and does not acknowledge the ongoing controversy about other Prius safety and quality issues.

Critics point out that for decades, Consumer Reports automatically gave Toyota products its top ratings before quality data was available from surveys of its readers – an “innocent until proven guilty” position that is at the heart of American criminal law.

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Historical Perspective!

However, this automatic endorsement reverted to the French Napoleonic code of “guilty until proven innocent” when Consumer Reports rated other makers’ vehicles, including those from the Detroit Three. Until there was a track record, CR would not recommend them – a clear double standard that in light of recent events is even more troubling.

Questions also arise if Consumer Reports readers flagged the Toyota quality and safety issues now in full public view; and if they did, what did Consumer Reports do about them? Is CU trying to duck the issue?

“Our nation’s drivers, passengers and consumers at large deserve an even stronger car safety net,” claims Consumer Union President Jim Guest.

Guest was in my view, apparently, unable or unwilling to explain why the 2,000 or more complaints in the last decade about unintended acceleration issues with Toyota models were not noted by Consumers Union.

And why hasn’t one of the Congressional panels investigating Toyota deaths not subpoenaed CR data?

Guest now says, “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.”

No argument here from us, as we have and will always attempt to do this.

CU now recommends that NHTSA initiate a program to “raise public awareness and encourage more drivers to participate in data gathering.”

“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 any early stage,” Guest claims.

Guest now also wants safety changes in new car design.

“NHTSA should promulgate safety regulations to prevent sudden unintended acceleration in all automobiles,” he says.

Among his suggested changes are:

  • Requiring cars to stop within a reasonable distance, even if the throttle is wide open.
  • Requiring simple, standard controls that turn off the engine in an emergency.
  • Mandating intuitive, clearly labeled transmission shifters in all new cars.
  • Requiring a minimum distance between the gas pedal and the floorboard.

Some of these seem ok at first glance, and should be explored further. We have previously raised questions about start/stop buttons, and – more importantly – cell phone use and the thousands of fatal accidents that NHTSA attributes to distracted driving each year. Congress and NHTSA have thus far done little here to stop the carnage.

In the case of unintended acceleration, though, multiple investigations of the alleged incidents by NHTSA have concluded that driver error is involved. There is no way to NHTSA can change drivers. It can encourage safer designs though.

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3 Responses to “Consumers Union Calls for Changes in Safety Rules”

  1. Larry Nutson says:

    Treading on “American Freedom”, let me suggest we need to take steps to no longer allow an individual –owner, dealer, accessorizer– to modify a vehicle’s original design in a manner that negatively impacts performance and safety. I can’t believe some of the stuff I see on vehicles on the road today!

  2. Ken Zino says:

    Larry: You raise a classic issue of individual rights versus social needs.

    I agree with you – in theory – that modifications should be limited if they have the potential to cause harm.

    However, there is also a history here of makers taking advantage of consumers and price fixing under the guise of “no modifications to our design.”

    Radios, come to my mind, where makers tried to limit choices for no reason other than profits.

    I’m not sure how to work around this modification issue? Cosmetic changes are benign.

    As always, we welcome input from our viewers. – KZ, editor.

  3. Harry says:

    Accessories are required to meet many of the requirements for safety of the OEM parts. They are just not inspected by the government in the same way. Instead of requiring government approval before allowing it to be sold they wait for the public to complain and then litigate if there is an issue. Clear tail lights are an example of this.
    Another example is the regulations about floor mats.

    The driver training issue need to be brought up more. We all assume that officer Saylor was well trained but that usually is not the case for most law enforcement officers. It is definitely not the case for the general public. NHTSA may not regulate driver training and testing but the states do.