After years of denial, including "inaccurate and misleading" statements to the public and federal investigators, news broke Tuesday that Toyota would finally stop selling some of its vehicles plagued by the sudden acceleration problem.
After denying this problem since 2002 and a history of safety-problem cover-ups, what is the real story behind Toyota’s decision to finally stop selling these dangerous vehicles?
In its rush last week to play corporate white knight and recall a bunch of brand-spanking-new Toyotas for sticky accelerator pedals, Toyota forgot one eensy detail: the recall regulations prohibit the sale of defective new vehicles and components.
This was pointed out, with some disbelief, by several news articles on the recall. What they didn’t mention was Part 573.11: Prohibition on sale or lease of new defective and noncompliant motor vehicles and items of replacement equipment. This section expressly forbids selling a new defective vehicle or component until it is remedied.
Four days later, the fanfare was cut short by yesterday’s announcement that Toyota would stop selling these vehicles until the new pedal assemblies were installed.
So, what we want to know: who called the decision-makers at Toyota? The lawyers at the Department of Transportation? A savvy dealer? An educated underling?
Sean Kane even quotes the actual federal regulation that required Toyota to stop selling these dangerous vehicles:
Here’s the relevant section:
§ 573.11 Prohibition on sale or lease of new defective and noncompliant motor vehicles and items of replacement equipment.
(a) If notification is required by an order under 49 U.S.C. 30118(b) or is required under 49 U.S.C. 30118(c) and the manufacturer has provided to a dealer (including retailers of motor vehicle equipment) notification about a new motor vehicle or new item of replacement equipment in the dealer’s possession, including actual and constructive possession, at the time of notification that contains a defect related to motor vehicle safety or does not comply with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard issued under 49 CFR part 571, the dealer may sell or lease the motor vehicle or item of replacement equipment only if:
(1) The defect or noncompliance is remedied as required by 49 U.S.C. 30120 before delivery under the sale or lease; or
(2) When the notification is required by an order under 49 U.S.C. 30118(b), enforcement of the order is restrained or the order is set aside in a civil action to which 49 U.S.C. 30121(d) applies.
(b) Paragraph (a) of this section does not prohibit a dealer from offering the vehicle or equipment for sale or lease, provided that the dealer does not sell or lease it.
ABC News reported that safety regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration demanded that Toyota stop selling the recalled vehicles.
"The truth is, the reason Toyota decided to do the recall and to stop manufacturing is because we asked them to," [Transportation Secretary Ray] LaHood told WGN Radio.
The Washington Post, also confirmed that it was government safety officials who pressured Toyota to finally stop selling (at least some) of these dangerous vehicles.
"NHTSA informed Toyota of their obligations and they complied with the law," David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said via e-mail. "Their decision to halt sales was legally and morally the right thing to do."
The Washington Post story also noted:
Toyota’s decision on Tuesday to suspend the production and sale of eight models follows months of wrangling with federal safety officials, and stark disagreements with them over what was causing unintended accelerations.
As recently as November, the company claimed that the acceleration problem was caused by faulty floor mats, a diagnosis that made for a simple solution: take them out.
The issue "has been repeatedly and thoroughly investigated" by federal regulators at the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, Bob Daly, a Toyota senior vice president assured customers at the time.
But two days later, the agency issued an unusual statement seeking to correct "inaccurate and misleading information put out by Toyota." Removing floor mats doesn’t fix the underlying vehicle defect, it said, adding that it is related to the accelerator and floor pan design.
For months, I have been documenting mounting evidence that the Toyota acceleration problem is systemic and widespread. After Toyota insisted that it would continue selling these defective, I asked "What if Toyota is wrong about the scope of the problem?" What if Toyota has not found all of the problems yet?
Safety experts across the country have been asking similar questions and are convinced that Toyota’s recall should be expanded.
From the Washington Post:
"First, they blamed the messenger — the drivers, then they blamed the media for blowing it out of proportion, and then they weren’t very forthcoming," said Michelle Krebs, an auto analyst at Edmunds.com. "They keep digging and digging and finding more problems. The question is: Have they found them all yet?"
Unintended acceleration is occurring across a number of Toyota makes, models and years and under varying circumstances. Based on Safety Research & Strategies’ review of complaints, owner interviews and vehicle inspections, there appears to be a multitude of root causes ranging from mechanical interface to unidentified electronic defects. Thus far, Toyota has only been willing to recall some vehicles for mechanical defects.
Many vehicle models with high rates of unintended acceleration complaints, like the 2002 to 2006 Camry models are still not part of any recall.
Safety experts agree that this could be the tip of the iceberg and even more needs to be done. In fact, Toyota has not yet recalled some models or model-years with the highest rate of unintended acceleration complaints, such as the 2002-06 Toyota Camry. Toyota’s failure to include these vehicles gives its customers and the public a false sense of security.
Just last night, KCTV5 in Kansas City aired a report in which a Toyota owner expressed how relieved she was that her 2003 Toyota Camry was not included in the recall. Toyota has done nothing to warn these owners that their vehicles can — and, in fact have already — experienced the sudden acceleration defect.
There is still much work to be done to ensure Toyota vehicles are safe for American families and for American highways. Finally, after consistent prodding by safety experts like Sean Kane and the outstanding investigation of organizations like the Los Angeles Times and ABC News, Toyota is beginning to move in the right direction. However, it appears there is more yet to do.
I have been documenting the Toyota sudden acceleration and "sticky throttle" problems for months and you can learn more at our auto safety blog.
Brett Emison is currently a partner at Langdon & Emison, a firm dedicated to helping injured victims across the country from their primary office near Kansas City. Mainly focusing on catastrophic injury and death cases as well as complex mass tort and dangerous drug cases, Mr. Emison often deals with automotive defects, automobile crashes, railroad crossing accidents (train accidents), trucking accidents, dangerous and defective drugs, defective medical devices.