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Toyota's Record on Safety Issues Questioned

Feb 8, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

With a Prius recall seemingly imminent, Toyota is facing new questions about the way it responds to safety issues. According to a report in The New York Times, its not unusual for Toyota to change the design of cars in production to fix flaws, yet at the same time, neglect to address the same problems with vehicles already on the road.

In recent months, Toyota’s reputation for quality and reliability has taken a hit because of a string of recalls related to faulty accelerator pedals that can cause unintended acceleration. As of January 2010, Toyota had recalled a total 5.3 million vehicles in the U.S. due to incidents of dangerous, unintended acceleration. On January 21, Toyota recalled 2.3 million vehicles due to accelerator pedals on those vehicles becoming stuck in a depressed position, causing unexpected and unsafe acceleration.

Just a few months prior, in September 2009, Toyota announced it was recalling and replacing floor mats on approximately 4.2 million vehicles which were allegedly causing accelerator pedals in the vehicles to become stuck in the depressed position, leading to uncontrollable and rapid acceleration of the vehicle.

But according to The New York Times, Toyota had reports from Europe about sticking accelerator pedals as early as December 2008. The company started installing redesigned pedals on new vehicles there last August. Toyota told the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that it did not realize until October that the pedals in cars made in the U.S. used the same material as those in Europe, despite the fact that they were made by the same manufacturer. Instead, Toyota blamed sudden acceleration complaints from U.S. consumers on floor mats, and issued the September recall.

The January recall was finally issued after the company and the NHTSA continued to receive reports of unintended acceleration in vehicles where the floor mats had been removed. According to the Times, Toyota did not recall cars with sticky pedals in Europe, after it made a design change for new cars, because it considered the problem a “customer satisfaction” issue rather than a defect. It recalled 1.8 million European Toyotas after the U.S. recall was issued in January.

Last week we reported that Toyota said that it was investigating reports of Prius brakes that temporarily quit working on bumpy or slippery roads. Later in the week, the company acknowledged that the braking system on third-generation Priuses had a design flaw, and what’s more, Toyota had already corrected the brake problem for Prius models sold since late January.

Now, The New York Times is reporting that Toyota only began investigating brake complaints on the 2010 Prius hybrid after Japan’s Transport Ministry ordered it to do so.

Last week, Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda, grandson of the company’s founder, apologized for the its recent missteps, and promised change. Toyoda said he would be heading up a committee to improve quality control at the besieged car company.

But owners of 2010 Prius hybrids are still waiting for word on a brake fix. Japanese media outlets are reporting that a recall of nearly 300,000 2010 Prius vehicles in the U.S. and Japan could come anytime. According to the Associated Press, the company has told dealers in the U.S it is preparing to repair the brakes on thousands of Prius vehicles, but it wasn’t clear if that would involve a formal recall. Some media sources are also reporting that the Lexus HS250h and Sai hybrid sedan may require similar repairs.

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