Ray LaHood Comments Show Toyota Owners' Conundrum

Before he backtracked on his statement, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said what many government officials are thinking but won't say: "My advice to anyone who owns one of these vehicles is stop driving it, and take it to the Toyota dealership because they believe they have the fix for it."

He subsequently modified his statement after the headlines blaring "LaHood says stop driving Toyotas until fixed" started to spread virally across the airwaves and Internet.

What he now says he meant to say is that the more than four million Toyota owners affected should bring their cars into a dealership to have them fixed.

Of course, the Transportation Secretary can't say that millions of people who have no other mode of travel -- and who absolutely depend on their Toyota to get to work, school or grandma's – should park their cars and wait for a fix. Unless, that is, he has the capability to hand out safe cars to those in need until Toyota dealers apply the fix.

Instead he simply recommends that affected drivers go to the dealer. If they choose to continue to drive without doing so, well, there isn't much he can do about it. He can't offer a stimulus package or bailout to supply cars -- even American cars -- to affected Toyota owners.

Toyota issued a statement following LaHood's remarks, noting the situation in which a Toyota accelerator could malfunction is "rare and generally does not occur suddenly." When it does, the company said, the "vehicle can be controlled with firm and steady application of the brakes."

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. 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.

LaHood said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will conduct an investigation and put Toyota through the ringer. But that isn't going to help the people who he first said should stop driving their potentially lethal vehicles. It's a "hope for the best" situation in which Toyota will pay a price, but not as high as those who lost life or limb because of the defect.

Daniel Farber is editor-in-chief of CBSNews.com.

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    Dan has more than 20 years of journalism experience. He has served as editor in chief of CBSNews.com, CNET News, ZDNet, PC Week, and MacWeek.