Sustained Outrage

Toyota recap: Tough talk from NHTSA

toyota-logo.jpgIt’s been quite a week for Toyota.

On Monday, the automaker announced its “comprehensive plan” for fixing sticking gas pedals, and Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. president and COO James E. Lentz did a series of media appearances, trying to address concerns about the massive recall.

Lentz’s statements prompted members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to send him a letter on Tuesday, asking him to clarify the apparent discrepancies in information provided by Toyota to the public and to Congressional staffers.

On Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said: “My advice is, if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it,” he said. “Take it to a Toyota dealer because they believe they have a fix for it.” He later clarified his comments, and here’s a statement LaHood made on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Web site on Feb. 3:

lahood.jpgI want to encourage owners of any recalled Toyota models to contact their local dealer and get their vehicles fixed as soon as possible. NHTSA will continue to hold Toyota’s feet to the fire to make sure that they are doing everything they have promised to make their vehicles safe. We will continue to investigate all possible causes of these safety issues.

LaHood’s tough stance on holding Toyota accountable for producing safe cars stands in marked contrast to previous NHTSA investigations. As the Gazette-Mail reported on Jan. 30, Toyota employee Christopher Santucci, hired directly away from NHTSA, admitted under oath in a December deposition that he discussed the 2004 investigation with his former colleagues at the federal safety agency. Following those discussions, NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigations limited the scope of the investigation, excluding incidents of unintended acceleration that lasted longer that one second and where the car couldn’t be controlled by applying the brake.

And it’s nice to see the national media is catching on to the chummy relationship between Toyota and the agency that was supposed to be monitoring it. It only took five days for the New York Times and ABC News to publish their own stories about Toyota, NHTSA and Santucci. Here’s ABC’s lead from yesterday’s “Revolving Door: From US Safety Agency to Toyota Representative” story:

Federal safety investigators agreed to exclude reports of the most serious cases of alleged “runaway Toyotas” after the intervention of a former safety official hired to be a Washington, D.C. representative of Toyota, an ABC News investigation has found.

According to this latest update on the recall, Toyota is still focusing on floor mats and sticking accelerator pedals. It’s also looking at issues with software that controls the braking system in 2010 Prius models.