LaHood backtracks on Toyota

Transportation secretary retracts advice to stop using vehicles

gas-pedal probe may spread

February 04, 2010|By From Baltimore Sun staff and news services

WASHINGTON — - Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Toyota owners Wednesday they should stop driving their vehicles, then quickly took back his words, adding to confusion over the safety of millions of recalled cars. Toyota, for its part, tried to reassure drivers that sticky gas pedals have been rare - and that the cars can be stopped in any event by firmly stepping on the brakes.

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."

The back-and-forth played out as word surfaced that Toyota Motor Corp. also has been the subject of more than 100 complaints in the U.S. and Japan about brake problems with the popular Prius gas-electric hybrid, which is not part of the gas-pedal recall. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received about 100 complaints, two of them involving crashes that resulted in injuries.

The DARCARS Toyota dealership in East Baltimore received "an enormous amount of calls" from drivers amid the news reports, said General Manager Alan Kassel. Some Toyota owners have been so concerned about the safety of their vehicles in recent days that the dealer agreed to pay for rental cars until their vehicles could be repaired.

"If someone is uncomfortable driving their vehicle, we told them, 'Please come in,' " Kassel said.

The dealership received the parts Wednesday and has already completed some repairs. The service department's 12 technicians plan to schedule appointments as late as 9 p.m. on weekdays to complete as many of the 30-minute fixes as quickly as possible. The Silver Spring DARCARS store, which has 50 technicians, may book repairs through the night if necessary.

"Whatever it's going to take, we're committed to being there," Kassel said.

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.

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.

The Toyota recall in the U.S. covers 2.3 million vehicles: 2009-10 RAV4 crossovers, 2009-10 Corollas, 2009-10 Matrix hatchbacks, 2005-10 Avalons, 2007-10 Camrys, 2010 Highlander crossovers, 2007-10 Tundra pickups and 2008-10 Sequoia SUVs. The recalls also extend to Europe and China, covering nearly 4.5 million vehicles overall.

Toyota said the sticking gas pedal situation "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 said the government is considering civil penalties against the carmaker but that it appeared "Toyota is making an all-out effort to do all that they can to fix these cars."

Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee, said he planned to ask Toyota about the complaints related to the Prius.

Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, said: "Obviously, there are concerns regarding the consistency of information that is entering the public domain."

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz F. Kay and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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