In Rare Move, NHTSA Gives Toyota a Public Slap
By Brendan Moore
The NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), the federal agency that regulates vehicle safety and conducts vehicle recalls, must be very, very unhappy with Toyota.
For those of you that haven’t been following this situation, the NHTSA issued an official warning to Toyota and Lexus owners in September to remove the driver’s side floor mat in their vehicles to prevent the floor mat from jamming the accelerator pedal. Four people were killed in their Lexus ES350 in California in August when the floor mat in their car become jammed with the accelerator, and they could not stop or slow down the car.
The recall could affect as many as 3.8 million Toyota Motor Corporation vehicles.
The problem the NHTSA is having with Toyota this week is that on Monday, Toyota put out a press release that stated that the federal agency had determined that, “no defect exists in vehicles in which the driver’s floor mat is compatible with the vehicle and properly secured.”
On Wednesday, the NHTSA made it clear through their own press release that morning that they had determined no such thing, and further, that Toyota and Lexus owners merely removing their floor mats, “does not correct the underlying defect in the vehicles involving the potential for entrapment of the accelerator by floor mats, which is related to accelerator and floor pan design.”
People in and around the auto industry were unable to remember a similar public dressing-down from the NHTSA. The federal agency is known for their preference for conducting steady but low-key activity and behind-the-scenes negotiation with automakers concerning safety issues. This type of very public rebuttal to an automaker’s claims is very unusual for the regulatory wonks over at the NHTSA.
A chastened Toyota replied on Wednesday afternoon that, “It was never our intention to mislead or provide inaccurate information. Toyota agrees with N.H.T.S.A.’s position that the removal of the floor mats is an interim measure and that further vehicle-based action is required. We are in the process of developing vehicle-based remedies to help avoid the potential for an unsecured or incompatible floor mat to trap the accelerator pedal.”
Toyota officials are now busily denying in the press that they are trying to whitewash the issue, or, trying to shape public opinion regarding potential engineering or design defects in their vehicles.
Part of that public relations offensive, however, are statements by Toyota officials that can best be paraphrased as, “We’re Toyota, and you know we would never lie to you”, which, although soothing to many people, are not nearly convincing enough to others that are suspicious of what they see as the huge automaker’s efforts to tamp down negative press concerning the safety defect in some of their vehicles.
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