LaHood: I Overstated Toyota Warning

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 2010, before the House Appropriations subcommittee on Transportation. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke) AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke

Updated 6:40 p.m. EST

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood backtracked from comments advising owners of recalled Toyotas to "stop driving" their cars, saying that he only meant to urge affected customers to take their vehicles into a dealership to get them repaired.

"What I said in there was obviously a misstatement," LaHood told reporters after testifying before a House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation Wednesday.

"What I meant to say or what I thought I said was, if you own one of these cars or if you're in doubt, take it to the dealer and they're going to fix it."

The Japanese automaker has recalled nearly 4.5 million vehicles worldwide because of gas pedal problems. On Monday, the company said it began shipping replacement parts to dealerships to begin repairs.

LaHood told reporters earlier in the day that Toyota owners should contact their dealer immediately and "exercise caution until repairs can be made."

Toyota raced to acknowledge LaHood's clarification - but worried customers were already flooding Toyota switchboards, reports CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds.

"It creates a lot of confusion and it's a real issue because I think consumers have some legitimate concerns and need straight answers," Jeremy Anwyl, CEO of the auto site Edmunds.com, told Reynolds.

In a statement, Toyota said "we appreciate Secretary LaHood's clarification of his remarks."

Read more about the Toyota recall at CBSNews.com:

Are Toyota Woes and Opening for GM, Ford?
Toyota Dealers Get $75K to Win Back Buyers
LaHood: Stop Driving Recalled Toyotas
Ray LaHood Comments Show Toyota Owners' Conundrum
Toyota Prius Drivers Voice Brake Concerns
LaHood: Toyota Resisted Safety Fix
Analyst: Recall Costs Toyota $155M a Week
Does Toyota's Problem Go Beyond Pedals?
Toyota: New Pedal Parts on Way to Dealers

The automaker maintains that the problems with gas pedals were "rare" and generally do not occur suddenly. In the event of a problem, the car "can be controlled with firm and steady application of the brakes," the statement read.

"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," the statement continued.

Despite the automaker's assurances and LaHood's clarification, Toyota owners face a conundrum.

"Clearly, the odds of the Toyota accelerator problem causing irrevocable harm are small. But with foreknowledge of a potentially serious problem, expecting people to drive the vehicle is a dicey proposition," writes CBSNews.com editor-in-chief Daniel Farber. "It's similar to asking a person to fly even if they know that some planes in an airline fleet have a potential fatal flaw that could lead to injury or death - but the probability is small so they should just take their chances."

Asked if he thought the replacement part provided by Toyota is going to fix the problem, Brian Coster, service manager at Grossinger Toyota in Chicago replied, "100 percent."

The stainless steel reinforcement is supposed to eliminate friction that Toyota says is causing its pedals to stick. Floor mats jammed under the pedal is a second cause. But government statistics point to a third - the on-board electronics, Reynolds reports.

In 2002, Toyota switched from a mechanical system linking the driver's foot pedal to the engine and replaced it with a system using electronic signals governed by computer sensors and microprocessors.

Almost immediately, complaints of sudden unexplained acceleration in Toyotas increased - nearly quadrupling in its best-selling Camry. Now there's word of mounting complaints about faulty brakes - run by electronics as well - in the new Prius and unexplained acceleration in Toyota's Tacoma pickup, Reynolds reports.

Wednesday's back-and-forth played out as word surfaced that Toyota also has been the subject of more than 100 complaints in the U.S. and Japan about brake problems with the popular Prius gas-electric hybrid, which is not part of the recall. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received about 100 complaints, two of them involving crashes that resulted in injuries. In addition, Japan's transport ministry said it had received 14 complaints.

Rep. Bart Stupak, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee, said he planned to ask Toyota about the complaints related to the Prius.

Meanwhile, LaHood said the NHTSA also will conduct an investigation into the potential problems with the electronic throttle control systems in Toyota cars.

NHTSA has conducted several investigations into possible causes of sudden acceleration incidents in various Toyota vehicles.

While NHTSA has not identified additional causes for sudden acceleration beyond pedal entrapment and sticky floor mats, the agency is continuing to investigate the issue and has urged Toyota to take every necessary measure to ensure consumer safety.

NHTSA's continuing investigation includes looking at the possibility that electromagnetic interference might somehow be causing Toyota's electronic throttle controls systems to malfunction, though NHTSA has not seen evidence to support that yet.

LaHood said the government "has the resources" to conduct the investigation.

During an appearance at Discovery Forum 2010, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak speculated that Toyota may have problems with its software, not just the faulty accelerators. Wozniak, who owns a Prius hybrid, said he's had some "very scary" experience with unlimited acceleration while his car is on cruise control.

Further clouding the picture for consumers: the notion that problems could extend beyond Toyota vehicles. Federal officials have widened their investigation of malfunctioning gas pedals to see if the same problem exists in cars made by other auto companies.

The traffic safety agency said it had sent a letter to CTS Corp., the Indiana company that made the pedals for Toyota, to find out more about the pedals it has manufactured for other auto companies, including Honda, Nissan and a small number of Fords in China. CTS has been adamant that the issues are limited to Toyota alone.

The Toyota recall in the U.S. covers 2.3 million vehicles and involves 2009-10 RAV4 crossovers, 2009-10 Corollas, 2009-10 Matrix hatchbacks, 2005-10 Avalons, 2007-10 Camrys, 2010 Highlander crossovers, 2007-10 Tundra pickups and 2008-10 Sequoia SUVs. The recalls also extend to Europe and China, covering nearly 4.5 million vehicles overall.

LaHood has been critical of Toyota's response to the issue, calling the company "a little safety deaf" during an Associated Press interview Monday. LaHood said the automaker only went ahead with the recall after pressure from the government.

"If it had not been for the work of (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) pushing Toyota to make the recall, traveling to Japan, meeting with the top officials of Toyota in Japan and telling them that their folks in the United States seem to be a little safety deaf when it came to us talking to them, I don't know if the recall would be taking place," LaHood said.

LaHood said the government is considering civil penalties against the carmaker but that it appeared "Toyota is making an all-out effort to do all that they can to fix these cars."

Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, said plenty of questions remain.

"Obviously, there are concerns regarding the consistency of information that is entering the public domain," he said.

LaHood also said Wednesday he will call Toyota President Akio Toyoda in the coming days to make sure the Japanese automaker is aware of the government's concerns about safety issues with Toyota vehicles.

In an effort to help with the recall effort, Toyota is giving U.S. dealers payments of up to $75,000 to help win back customers' trust.

In a letter obtained by The Associated Press, Toyota group vice president Bob Carter thanks dealers for extending service hours and providing car washes and other services. Carter says the payments will help with those measures.

Toyota is sending checks this week based on the number of cars each dealer sold last year. Dealers who sold fewer than 500 cars will get $7,500. Dealers who sold more than 4,000 will get $75,000.
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