There was an interesting article, “Weak Oversight, Deadly Cars”, by Clarence Ditlow and Ralph Nader, in the New York Times recently. In summary, they criticize NHTSA (the federal government’s auto safety arm) and conclude, “Only a complete overhaul of the agency’s culture will prevent future recalls, since automakers will always place sales and profits over safety and innovation”. True, but that’s not the whole story.
NHTSA and the federal government can never be fully equipped to hold these massive companies accountable for unsafe practices and defective products. Ultimately, that happens in the court of public opinion, which Ditlow and Nader reference, and in the actual courtroom, which they ignore.
The same is true for children’s products (regulated by the CPSC) and pharmaceutical products (regulated by the FDA). The government simply cannot predict EVERYTHING that a company will do wrong and make a rule to prevent it. We already have thousands of rules, but companies still make unsafe products. Why? Because in certain circumstances, you can make a lot more money making an unsafe product versus a safe one. Rules are great to help prevent future injuries. And we need them. But what about the people who are already hurt? Or the parents who have already lost their children? This is where justice and the 7th Amendment right to a trial by jury come into play.
Companies speak the language of money. So what has a better chance at making sure a company chooses the safer alternative in designing its vehicle? Or in choosing whether and when to institute a recall when a safety issue is brought to their attention? A scolding from the government, or a multi-million-dollar judgment when somebody gets hurt because the company did nothing to address the defect? ArguablyToyota addressed sudden accelerations because of what they faced in the courtroom and because of public outrage, not because the government got mad at them. GM instituted one of the largest vehicle recalls in history for the same reason. Government scrutiny is important, but we must be careful not to try and substitute the judgment of regulators for the judgment of our citizens. One takes place in Washington, the other in our local communities.