Polishing Toyota's Tarnished Image May Take Time

Toyota owners have been traveling a rough road lately. For days, the news has been filled with frightening reports about stuck gas pedals and faulty brakes. Toyota, long revered for the quality and reliability of its products, has been recalling millions of vehicles for repairs.

The media coverage has been extensive, even though analysts have tallied only 19 deaths since 1999 because of sudden acceleration problems related to sticky gas pedals.

That's a very small number compared with total highway deaths. This year, safety experts estimate roughly 37,000 people will die on U.S. roads. Most highway deaths are related to speeding, distractions, intoxication or poor road conditions.

But the Toyota story is attracting attention because the company was long seen as the gold standard for manufacturing quality. Moreover, its handling of the recalls has been heavily criticized. Government regulators have been getting reports of gas pedal problems for many years, but it wasn't until last August — after an acceleration-related crash killed four people in California — that Toyota launched a massive recall.

In addition, the Toyota news comes at a time when many people are unhappy with big corporations. In recent years, big banks and mortgage companies have sunk into deep trouble or even collapsed because they allowed the quality of their loans to deteriorate so much.

Now Toyota, a company that previously had the highest standards of quality, may have made missteps. In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which tracks auto safety-related complaints, appears to have failed to warn the public about Toyota's accelerator problems. Critics say that in recent years, the agency has lacked the leadership and funding needed to aggressively monitor safety.

On Friday, Toyota's president, Akio Toyoda, held a news conference in Japan to try to rebuild trust. He said he was apologizing from the bottom of his heart, but added, "Believe me, Toyota cars are safe."

It can be tough to difficult to win back buyers once they've had a bad car experience. Detroit automakers turned off a generation of consumers in the 1970s and early 1980s by making flawed cars such as the Ford Pinto and Chevy Citation.

Analysts have been recommending Toyota move quickly to fix the problems and start to offer price incentives to lure customers back into showrooms.

But automakers in Detroit, South Korea and elsewhere already are using the recall to try to steal customers from Toyota. They have started offering low-interest financing, cash-back deals and other incentives to disgruntled Toyota owners.

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