By Frank James
Sometimes a senior government official should just say "I don't know."
That would have been the clearest, most direct answer to a question Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was asked by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) at a House hearing today who essentially asked him if Toyotas were safe.
LaHood answered declaratively that the Toyotas that have been recalled aren't safe. Those vehicles were recalled for floor mats that could interfere with the accelerator pedals and for sticky gas pedals.
That leaves the impression that those not recalled are deemed safe by the Transportation Department.
But LaHood didn't go that far. Instead, he said his department was probing the theory that electronic issues were behind some of the cases of sudden unintentional acceleration.
Obviously, the reason his agency is investigating those reports is because a number of people have raised the electronics as a possible smoking gun and the department has no conclusive idea whether those suspicions are valid or not.
So his answer to whether Toyotas are safe might have been clearer if he had said, "Those that have been recalled aren't. We honestly don't know yet about those that weren't recalled."
Here's his exchange with Cummings.
CUMMINGS: As I sat here and listened to you, you said, go to the website and you said if people were having certain problems they should go to the dealership.
Then I heard you, in answer to the chairman's question, I don't think you ever really answered the question because he asked you whether or not you considered a Toyota to be safe.
You are our safety guy. Just as you just said. You said it. I didn't. And I believe that. I believe you are concerned about safety.
The question still becomes for our constituents, you as our safety guy,
LAHOOD: Let me answer you very directly Mr. Cummings. For those cars that are listed on our website, DOT.gov, for recall to go back, those are not safe. We've determined they're not safe.
CUMMINGS: All right.
We believe we need to look at the electronics in these cars 'cause people have told us, they believe there is an issue. And we're going to do that. We're going to have a complete review on the electronics.
But for now, any car that's on the website needs to go back to the dealer to be fixed. We've determined that those are not safe because of a floormat problem, because of a sticky pedal, and, and...
CUMMINGS: It's the "and" that I'm wondering about. Right there...
CUMMINGS: ... There are automobiles that are not on the recall list. Because that's what I'm beginning to wonder about. What are they supposed to do?
LAHOOD: There are people who believe there are electronics problems with Toyota. And that's the reason we're going to do a review.
LAHOOD: And for now we don't have evidence to say conclusively that there are these electronics problems. But we're going to get into it. We're going to get into the weeds. There were some people before that committee yesterday that had some studies that showed that there were electronics problems on at least one that was tested. We want that information.
For now the only thing I will say to Toyota drivers is if your car is listed, take it to the dealer and get it fixed.
So the department has no conclusive evidence that there are electronics problems. But it lacks such evidence to say there aren't, either. A more straightforward way of saying that is "We don't know."
The question remains what do you do if your late-model Toyota isn't on the recall list? LaHood appears not to have an answer for you. You're pretty much on your own.
LaHood's caution may be understandable since he earlier this month had to backtrack after he told Toyota owners whose vehicles had been recalled to immediately stop driving them, period. His answer on the recalled vehicles actually seemed a repetition of that earlier warning he backed away from.
He clearly can't say the Toyota vehicles are safe or unsafe because of the electronics before the engineering results are back. That's particularly true because whatever the federal government asserts is likely to become evidence in any number of product liability lawsuits.
But besides saying "I don't know" about the safety of the non-recalled vehicles, he could have added that until there's a definitive answer on the electronics, Toyota owners need to remain alert and have a plan for what to do if sudden unintentional acceleration happens to them.