Dealers Question If Recalls Will Fix Toyota's Problems
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It's another tough week for Toyota. The president of Toyota's U.S. operations goes before Congress today. And his prepared remarks include an apology for the company's handling of its recent safety problems. Then tomorrow, the company's top executive Akio Toyoda will testify at another hearing.
Meanwhile, car dealerships around the country are retro-fitting the gas pedals on millions of vehicles. NPR's Chris Arnold has more - has been following a family-run dealership in Boston and talking to customers.
CHRIS ARNOLD: If you drive a Toyota, the chance of your car crashing due to unintended acceleration is extremely remote. Still, some drivers say their engines have inexplicably stated accelerating.
DONALD JOHNSON (Retired bank executive): Just out of the blue, coming out of a supermarket in North Quincy, and all of a sudden the engine, you could sense it was roaring.
ARNOLD: Donald Johnson is a retired bank executive. He's come into the Expressway Toyota Dealership in Boston. He's here to get the recall done on his '08 Toyota Avalon. Just a few days ago, he and his wife were leaving a grocery store parking lot. He was waiting for the red light to turn green, and he says his car tried to take off on him.
Mr. JOHNSON: I was just waiting in line. There was a couple cars ahead of us. Had my foot on the brake. But you could feel, you know, the engine revving up and like it was, you know, obviously trying to move, because I had the car in gear. And it was all I could to hold it in place. I immediately put it into a neutral position and turned the engine off.
ARNOLD: Johnson says because of all the attention on the safety issue with Toyotas, he knew what to do. He didn't panic and just turned off the car. Nobody was hurt.
Still, Johnson says he's confused about how fixing his gas pedal is going to solve the problem. He's confident his foot was on the brake not the gas when the engine started racing. He's heard that Toyota says that floor mats can sometimes slip and pin down the gas pedal. But Johnson says that his floor mat didn't seem to be anywhere near the gas pedal.
Mr. JOHNSON: I would rule that out - least wise not in my case. Makes you, you know, a little dubious, so to speak, that have they really found the reason for whatever has caused this to happen.
ARNOLD: That's likely to be a key question for lawmakers during hearings this week. They'll be pressing top Toyota executives. Why did it take years to address this problem and does the recall really fix it?
(Soundbite of machinery)
Back in the repair shop, Robert Boch, who owns this dealership with his brother, says he's had some of those same questions for Toyota.
Mr. ROBERT BOCH (Owner, Expressway Toyota Dealership): My livelihood depends on it. We want to make sure that this is the correct repair. And they tell us it is. I believe them.
ARNOLD: Boch says the recall effort has been going pretty smoothly. They have plenty of parts to do the repairs. Still, his sales are down.
Mr. BOCH: Sales were off over Washington's Birthday, by about 20 percent.
ARNOLD: About 100 Toyota dealers plan to be in Washington this week to urge Congress to be fair. They don't want politicians unnecessarily scaring their customers. And they point out that other carmakers have also had complaints about unintended acceleration.
Also, BOCH says that Toyota and the privately owned dealerships like his, together employ a lot of people.
Mr. BOCH: There's 172,000 Americans selling Toyotas or manufacturing Toyotas in this country.
ARNOLD: Meanwhile, Boch says most of his customers don't seem panicked about the recall. The fact is repair crews have been having trouble convincing customers not to stack up multiple floor mats in their cars, because in any car they might get wedged against the pedals.
In Boston, with the snow and the salt in the winter, people have all kinds of covers for their car's carpets.
Mr. BOCH: Like your Italian grandmother used to have. When you'd go to the house it'd plastic vinyl on the furniture.
ARNOLD: On the couch. Yeah, right.
Mr. BOCH: Yeah. The first thing they do is they put plastic vinyl down on everything in the car. Then they put the floor mat on. Then they put another floor mat on top of that. And you try to convince these people to take it out. And even now they don't want to do it. They don't want to do it.
ARNOLD: Looking ahead, Boch is hoping that Toyota might unveil more incentives and special deals to get more customers into his showroom again.
Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.
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