In news regarding automaker Toyota’s continuing problems with “unintended acceleration” – a sudden increase in speed that may be linked to several accidents and deaths since 2001 – preliminary findings from federal officials seem to support the company’s claims that problems lie not in faulty electronics, but rather in other issues such as sticking pedals, floor mat entrapment, and driver error.

Government regulators are investigating this issue using data collected from Toyota’s ‘black box’ recorders – devices installed in vehicles that record data such as velocity and acceleration. Of course, keep in mind that federal regulators are reviewing the accuracy of Toyota’s electronic system with an electronic device made by… Toyota? On this note, a handful of safety consultants are asking similar questions, such as: Is the black box device a scientifically validated instrument?

This raises the bigger question of the government’s willingness to trust automakers’ claims. It also brings up the familiar catch of free markets versus government regulation. On the one hand, self-regulation has always been problematic (remember when BP assured us that most companies had voluntarily adopted safeguards to protect against oil spills?). On the other, government regulation is sometimes equally faulty. Toyota’s ongoing acceleration issue highlights both sides of the debate.

First, let’s examine Toyota’s recent track record in terms of honesty and self-regulation:

Since last fall, Toyota has been found to have withheld important safety evidencedelaying a recall of sticking pedals, and deliberately ignoring safety issues found by the NHSTA in order to minimize costs. 2.3 million Toyotas were recalled for faulty accelerator pedals. In April, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fined Toyota 16.4 million dollars (compare to Toyota’s $200 billion in sales last year) for hiding the “sticky pedal” issue from government officials – a clear indication of Toyota’s profit-over-safety values.

Now, the NHTSA’s part:

During a 2007 investigation, federal regulators found that some Toyotas accelerated without warning. The NHTSA eventually concluded it only affected a small amount of cars and did not inform consumers, despite the fact that they found at least three out of every one-hundred Lexus (a Toyota brand) owners in Ohio were experiencing the unwanted acceleration. Then, in March, Investigators found several safety issues. However, Toyota would only agree to a minor recall of one type of floor mat. NHTSA then chose to NOT use its power to order a recall.

What is really problematic here is that neither Toyota, nor the federal organization in charge of regulating Toyota, succeeded in upholding an acceptable level of accountability regarding public safety. So let’s try to remember that a.) these results are preliminary, and the investigation is ongoing, b.) there’s still the issues of floor mats and sticky pedals, and c.) these results depended on Toyota’s machines that interpreted the data, and the company has a less-than-stellar recent history of being upfront with information.

Oh, not to mention a Toyota whistleblower emerged earlier this year claiming a culture of concealment

Lindsay Bigda is Communications Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading whistleblower advocacy organization.