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Marketplace Scratch Pad

A Freudian Toyotian Slip?

Scott Jagow Feb 3, 2010

Take this post with a grain of salt. I won’t be the one to suggest the US government is trying to “sweep the leg” out from under Toyota. But what happened today is a good example of the conflict of interests, real or perceived, that arise from giant government stakes in American companies.

This morning, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Congress people should “stop driving” Toyotas subject to the recall. Specifically:

Testifying before the House appropriations committee, Mr. LaHood was asked what advice he would give to owners of Toyotas subject to the recall. “My advice is, if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it, take it to the Toyota dealer because they believe they have the fix for it,” Mr. LaHood said.

Soon after, his staff went into damage control mode, saying the comment was inaccurate. After the hearing, LaHood said his remark was an “obvious misstatement.”
What he meant by “stop driving” was: Take the car to a dealer and have them look at it.

Ordinarily, it might be a harmless enough slip of the tongue, but a. it sent drivers into a panic and b. it only raised more questions about the government’s motives and relationships with the carmakers. Here’s how Toyota responded:

We appreciate Secretary LaHood’s clarification of his remarks today about Toyota’s recall for sticking accelerator pedals. We want to make sure our customers understand that this situation is rare and 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.

Our message to Toyota owners is this – if you experience any issues with your accelerator pedal, please contact your dealer without delay. If you are not experiencing any issues with your pedal, we are confident that your vehicle is safe to drive.

LaHood has also said Toyota was more than a little “safety deaf” and that it “took enormous effort” to get the company to issue its recalls. He has gone out of his way to make sure people know that Toyota issued its recall only after the government asked it to. From USA Today’s Drive On blog:

The unprecedented move to keep Toyota from selling models under recall could be viewed as economic punishment, rather than consumer protection. Neither LaHood nor Toyota think that owners of cars covered by the recall should stop driving them. The cars may be too potentially dangerous to be sold, but they are fine to drive as long as you’re aware of telltale warning signs that they may try to roar off on their own. Imagine a drug recall where the government stops sales in stores, but doesn’t tell people to throw away the bottles in their medicine cabinets.

Perhaps Toyota wasn’t forthcoming enough in this case, and it is solely to blame for whatever problems arise from it. Maybe the government was all over this as soon as it found out. But the evidence suggests otherwise:

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration seems to be in a bad spot too since it appeared to act very slowly in taking any action against Toyota in spite of the fact that claims of unintended acceleration counted in the hundreds.

The government is both regulator of all car companies and majority owner of two of them. I can’t help but wonder how this would be playing out if GM or Chrysler were having these problems. Would LaHood’s tongue be as sloppy? Would he accuse GM of being “safety deaf”? Would the NHTSA have acted sooner or differently?

Maybe everything would go exactly the same way. I’m just thinking aloud. The most important thing is making sure the cars are as safe as possible from this point forward.

But the fact that those questions come to mind is exactly the point of this salty post.

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