LaHood Backs Off 'Stop Driving Toyotas' Remark

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Wednesday reversed his recommendation that millions of Toyota owners affected by a massive recall "stop driving" the autos. LaHood said he misspoke and that owners should take their vehicles to a dealership for repair of defective gas pedals.

LaHood, speaking to a House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, earlier had this advice for Toyota owners: "Stop driving it. Take it to a Toyota dealer because they believe they have a fix for it."

The final word from LaHood: "What I meant to say or what I thought I said was, if you own one of these cars or if you're in doubt, take it to the dealer and they're going to fix it."

LaHood's comments came on the same day officials in Japan and the U.S. announced wider probes into safety issues that involve the 2010 edition of the company's top-selling Prius hybrid.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said it's continuing to investigate the possibility of that electromagnetic interference might cause the throttle control systems in the vehicles to malfunction, but the agency has not seen evidence to support that yet.

Further clouding the picture for consumers: the notion that problems could extend beyond Toyota vehicles. Federal officials have widened their investigation of malfunctioning gas pedals to see if the same problem exists in cars made by other auto companies.

Prius assembly line in Japan i i

Toyota Prius models come off a Japanese assembly line in June 2009. Toyota officials said Wednesday that the company has received dozens of complaints involving the brakes in the latest Prius model. Kyodo via AP hide caption

itoggle caption Kyodo via AP
Prius assembly line in Japan

Toyota Prius models come off a Japanese assembly line in June 2009. Toyota officials said Wednesday that the company has received dozens of complaints involving the brakes in the latest Prius model.

Kyodo via AP

The traffic safety agency said it had sent a letter to CTS, the Indiana company that made the pedals for Toyota, to find out more about the pedals it has manufactured for other auto companies, including Honda, Nissan and a small number of Fords in China. CTS has been adamant that the issues are limited to Toyota alone.

Toyota said the sticking gas pedal situation is unusual and "generally does not occur suddenly. In the rare instances where it does occur, the vehicle can be controlled with firm and steady application of the brakes."

LaHood accused the world's largest automaker of dragging its feet in its response to complaints about sticking accelerators, which resulted in a global recall of 4.6 million vehicles. The 2.3 million vehicles that were recalled in the U.S. had gas pedals that were made by CTS.

Toyota announced earlier this week that it had a fix for the problem and that dealers would get repair kits this week. The repair involves installing a steel shim a couple of millimeters thick in the pedal assembly, behind the top of the gas pedal, to eliminate the excess friction between two pieces of the accelerator mechanism.

More On The Recall

In the United States, 2.3 million cars and trucks have been affected by Toyota's Jan. 21 recall. Those models are:

Certain 2009-2010 RAV4s
Certain 2009-2010 Corollas
2009-2010 Matrix
2005-2010 Avalon
Certain 2007-2010 Camrys
Certain 2010 Highlanders
2007-2010 Tundra
2008-2010 Sequoia

Toyota has said it will shut down production of the eight U.S. models during the week of Feb. 1. Sales also have been suspended, though the automaker said they can resume once the potential problem with sticky accelerators has been fixed.

Customers can visit www.toyota.com/recall or call the Toyota Customer Experience Center at 800-331-4331 for more information.

Still, Toyota is facing growing criticism that it has not done enough to ensure the safety of its vehicles. In Japan, Toyota Vice President Shinichi Sasaki acknowledged that officials decided on the U.S. recall because of prodding from NHTSA.

LaHood said the U.S. government is considering civil penalties against the company for not addressing safety concerns faster.

Paul Eisenstein, publisher of the online automotive magazine TheDetroitBureau.com, said LaHood's shocking advice to Toyota owners might reflect the exasperation over the extent of the Toyota recall — as well as the growing sense that the public may not know everything.

"If it's found out that Toyota knew more than it's let on and longer than it's let on, I think this administration will move for civil penalties," Eisenstein said.

Complaints Over Prius Brakes

Eisenstein said his publication first reported on complaints of problems with the company's top-selling Prius hybrid six weeks ago.

In Japan, the company acknowledged Wednesday it is investigating potential problems with the brakes in the Prius.

But the fix for the sticking accelerators hasn't ended the Japanese automaker's problems. In Japan, the company acknowledged it is also investigating potential problems with the brakes in the top-selling Prius hybrid.

Japanese Transport Ministry official Masaya Ota said the government has received 14 complaints since July about the 2010 Prius model. The complaints include a head-on car crash at an intersection in which the Prius' brakes allegedly failed, Ota said. Two people were slightly injured in the wreck.

"The Prius driver in the accident told police that a brake did not work," he said. "Other Prius drivers also complained brakes were not so sharp." The complaints in Japan involved vehicles that were made in Japan, he said.

In the U.S., NHTSA has received about 100 complaints involving the brakes of the new Prius model. Two crashes resulted in injuries.

Eisenstein said if the much-lauded Prius is tainted by safety issues, it could send the company over the edge despite having a huge reservoir of goodwill.

Toyota Safety Concerns Multiply

Toyota is now facing safety concerns on three fronts: accelerator pedals that stick when depressed, along with an earlier, similar problem in which accelerator pedals got stuck in floor mats; potential electrical problems; and problems with the brakes in the Prius.

The company has seen auto sales in the U.S. and elsewhere plummet following massive recalls and the temporary halt of sales of eight models — including the popular Camry and Corolla. Toyota's January sales fell below 100,000 a month for the first time in more than a decade.

Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst for Edmunds.com, said the way the dealerships handle the repairs will be a big factor in whether Toyota retains or loses its customers.

"The dealership is really going to make or break Toyota in how they handle these recalls," Caldwell said. "Especially with something safety-related, you have to treat people well." She predicted customers will be willing to give the automaker another chance because Toyota has had a good track record for safety and reliability.

Still, Toyota is facing growing criticism that it has not done enough to ensure the safety of its vehicles.

LaHood said Tuesday that the government was considering civil penalties for Toyota for having dragged its feet on safety concerns.

Toyota's executive vice president, Shinichi Sasaki, acknowledged Tuesday in a news conference from Nagoya, Japan, that it took prodding from NHTSA officials for the company to decide on the U.S. recall.

Written and reported by NPR's Deborah Tedford, with reporting by Anthony Kuhn, Carol Van Dam and The Associated Press

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