Past Event

Brakes, gas pedals, and airbags: How safe are we on the road?

Last week’s snowstorms crippled much of the country, making driving especially hazardous. In such treacherous conditions, you want to know your brakes and gas pedals are safe and reliable. Toyota owners mayhave been feeling a bit more nervous than other drivers as new recalls were announced because of faulty brakes, gas pedals, and airbags on many Toyota brands.

So far, 8 million Toyota vehicles have been recalled with the prospect of even more recalls coming from the automaker. Among the models being recalled are Corolla, Avalon, Camry, Highlander, Rav4, Matrix, Tundra, and Sequoia.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration advised owners of 2010 Prius and Lexus hybrids to contact a dealer immediately if they noticed changes in brake performance. “Loss of braking is most likely to occur when traveling over an uneven road surface, pothole or bump,” the NHTSA said in a statement. “If this occurs, the agency advises owners to continue to firmly press on the brake to stop the vehicle. As an extra precaution, drivers can leave extra stopping distance.”

Congress is also gearing up to delve into the massive recall, with hearings scheduled this month about the problems. Some say the NHTSA let Toyota off the hook too many times. The New York Times reported:

“Internal agency documents and interviews with auto safety experts demonstrate that the [NHTSA] and the auto giant it regulated engaged in a Kabuki dance of sorts in the months and years before tensions coalesced. Drivers would file complaints by the dozens about mysterious accelerations and other hazards, federal regulators would open official reviews, Toyota would promise answers, the regulators would complain about not receiving the information they needed, and in the end, almost nothing would come of any of it.”

On Wednesday of last week, Honda also was announcing recalls on 437,000 vehicles due to a faulty driver side airbag system, bringing its recall total for the year to around 1 million vehicles.

The Times reported that Toyota’s mounting recalls were leading “a growing number of consumers” to take the automaker’s vehicles “off their car shopping list.”  Furthermore, according to the Kelley Blue Book, of those who said they were considering a Toyota prior to the recall, 27 percent now said they no longer are.

Trying to manage a growing public relations crisis, Toyota president Akio Toyoda wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, saying: “For much of Toyota’s history, we have ensured the quality and reliability of our vehicles by placing a device called an andon cord on every production line—and empowering any team member to halt production if there’s an assembly problem. Only when the problem is resolved does the line begin to move again. Two weeks ago, I pulled the andon cord for our company.”

The Huffington Post suggested that the recall “was years in the making and was complicated by excuses offered to regulators and by delay tactics employed by Toyota.” They also wrote that, “With the revelation that many Toyota automobiles are not as impeccably well-built or as safe as we had all assumed, the image is tarnished,” Bill Fischer, Professor of Technology Management at IMD, the global business school in Lausanne, Switzerland, wrote on “Toyota has started to look like a lot of organizations that promise things they can’t deliver and sell brands with little substance behind them.”

Popular Mechanics editor-in-chief James B. Meigs thinks the recall backlash is overblown. He wrote in the Huffington Post:

“The intensity of the backlash against Toyota is almost unprecedented. Here’s what is being missed in most of the coverage of the issue: All cars are inherently dangerous. They propel their fragile human cargo at high speeds over unpredictable terrain. They combine thousands of parts that need to interact flawlessly–in environments ranging from Death Valley heat to Fairbanks cold–in order to maintain safe operation. Their radiators contain scalding fluids; their batteries are full of toxic acid; and their gas tanks hold explosive power equivalent to more than 100 sticks of TNT. And, by all accounts, Americans drive those cars faster than ever, on increasingly congested roadways.”

How can the auto industry and Toyota, in particular, build consumer trust again? How have you reacted to Toyota and Honda’s recall announcements? How would you have advised Toyota on managing its marketing crisis? How much do you attribute Toyota’s response to safety complaints to it being a foreign automaker? How comfortable are you feeling about the NHTSA’s ability to regulate automakers? Do you think government oversight of industry in general has grown lax in recent years, or was it ever on top of potential problems?

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