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Former Chief: NHTSA Badly Underfunded

Joan Claybrook, a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, harshly criticized her former agency in Congressional testimony Wednesday and called on lawmakers to increase its budget.

She appeared on the final panel of speakers to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee as part of its probe into the safety defects that have led 8.5 million Toyota cars and trucks to be recalled in the U.S. and led to dozens of deaths under NHTSA's watch.

Representatives of the company, including Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda appeared in the preceding panel and apologized repeatedly for recent events.

Claybrook, who headed NHTSA from 1977 to 1981 under President Carter and is president emeritus of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen noted that NHTSA has fewer employees now than it did 30 years ago and said it could use another $100 million a year.

The NHTSA Office of Defect Investigation has only 57 employees, with 18 investigators, Claybrook said. NHTSA receives about 30,000 complaints a year.

NHTSA's budget is only about 15 percent of the Department of Transportation budget, even though highway and road accidents account for the vast majority of transportation deaths in the United States.

"It has a meager budget and needs $100 million more," citing the funding gaps in research, standard-setting, and investigations. NHTSA's current budget is about $850 million.

Still, Claybrook had harsh words for the auto companies themselves, most of which she said she withheld from her spoken testimony in an effort not to repeat what had already been said during the day's testimony. She said that the culture of secrecy is endemic to the auto industry - not just Toyota - and has managed to spread to NHTSA as well.

She and others questioned why supposed safeguards put in place after a major recall involving Firestone tires 10 years ago clearly proved ineffective in the current crisis.

She recommended making vehicle "black box" data publicly available and just accessible through companies' proprietary access systems. "The black box could be the liberator of what happens in particular crashes and could be the data source for agencies. It should be mandatory," she said.

Appearing with Claybrook was Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the consumer group The Center for Auto Safety. He recommended that NHTSA require that all responses to investigations be sworn statements, under penalty of perjury. He also said the industry should make early warnings and the minutes of ongoing investigations public, undertake a comprehensive evaluation of electronic throttle controls and adopt standards such as brake override controls.

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Toyoda apologized personally and repeatedly Wednesday to the United States and millions of American Toyota owners for safety lapses that have led to deaths and widespread recalls. Unimpressed lawmakers blistered the world's largest automaker with accusations of greed and insensitivity.

"I'm deeply sorry for any accident that Toyota drivers have experienced," the grandson of the founder of the Japanese auto giant told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He suggested his company's "priorities became confused" in a quest for growth over the past decade at the expense of safety concerns.

Toyoda told the panel he was "absolutely confident" there was no problem with the electronics of Toyota vehicles and repeated the company's stance that sudden accelerations were caused by either a sticking gas pedal or a misplaced floor mat. Some outside experts have suggested electronics may be at the root of the problems.

Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles, mostly to fix problems with floor mats trapping gas pedals or with pedals getting stuck.

Toyoda pledged his company would change the way it handles consumer complaints, including seeking greater input from drivers and outside safety experts when considering recalls. Toyota managers will also drive cars under investigation to experience potential problems first hand, he said.

He suggested his company's "priorities became confused" in its quest for growth over the past decade at the expense of safety concerns.

"We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization," Toyoda said. "I regret that this has resulted in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today, and I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced."