By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
Toyota’s current recall saga reminds me of the movie Groundhog Day – every day it’s the same thing, or a variation. First it was Toyota cars experiencing unintended acceleration caused by improper floor mats and sticky gas pedals, causing the Japanese automaker to issue a massive recall of millions of vehicles, stopping production, and bringing sales to a halt. Then, very quickly, the company announced it had a fix. So soon? (By the way, “product recall” is a misnomer that I find misleading because it suggests the product, in this case a Toyota car, will be retired or taken out of service permanently. That’s not what “recall” means. In this case, a consumer brings in his or her recalled car to a dealer, who fixes the problem at no charge. Recalls are mostly launched because of an inquiry and agreement with the company that it will fix the problem, prompted by consumer complaints about safety.)
I spent 10 years working on auto safety matters at Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, and I’ve had a hard time sorting out what exactly is going on with Toyota, so I can only imagine how confusing the series of events, reactions, and news coverage must be for consumers who own Toyotas. Members of Congress have scheduled a hearing next week, and two members on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are asking Toyota officials to clarify what exactly happened leading up to this recall. U.S. Toyota President James Lentz apparently told committee staff last year that the company first learned of the sticky pedals in vehicles driven in Ireland and England in April and May of 2009. But Lentz went on the Today Show this week and claimed that Toyota first became aware of the sticking accelerator pedals in late October of 2009. House members – and consumers – want this inconsistency explained.
Sean Kane, who runs a group called Safety Research and Strategies, documented more than 2,000 instances of unintended acceleration involving Toyotas, resulting in more than 800 crashes and 19 deaths since 1999. Carol Mathews of Rockville complained in 2003 to NHTSA about her Lexus’ sudden acceleration into a tree. Apparently Mathew’s complaint launched an NHTSA investigation.
Meanwhile, to avoid problems with electronic throttles and sudden acceleration, some automakers have introduced brake override systems, which is an electronic adjustment that allows drivers to stop the car even if the throttle is stuck open. But Joan Claybrook, longtime President of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen and a former NHTSA Administrator, asked a good question: “If it was just a floor mat problem, taking the floor mat out would correct the problem – so why are they putting the brake override in?” Toyota told the Washington Post that this was “an extra measure of confidence like other passive safety features on our vehicles.” Confidence is likely the last thing many consumers are feeling right now about their Toyotas.
Toyota could have avoided the negative publicity by more being upfront and open about safety problems, letting consumers know it was the company’s intent to fix safety problems. Instead we got inconsistent statements, confusing information, and a rushed fix, which – for better or worse – has been met with skepticism about its effectiveness. There’s a lesson here for all companies: consumers will respect your quick attention to address any safety concerns you uncover and will work with you to get the problem fixed. Don’t bury your head in the sand or blame the consumer for safety problems, as some dealers did.
Toyota — which should agree to be organized by the United Auto Makers union — makes a solid and popular line of vehicles; however, its handling of this recall has been plagued by confusing information and new safety concerns daily. Consumers deserve better. We hope Toyota can deliver on its promises to fix the flaws in the newer models and slow down its production line — if even a little — so that it can return to being the automaker many Americans trust to turn out a great product.