If I tell you not to drive your Toyota, that’s one thing — I’m just a car blogger. But when Ray LaHood, who last time I looked was Transportation Secretary, says it, people pay attention.
At a congressional hearing, LaHood was asked what he’d say to the owner of one of the eight recalled Toyota models
. “Stop driving it,” he said. “Take it to a Toyota dealer because they believe they have a fix for it.” Leaving aside the question of how the car will get to the dealer if the owner doesn’t drive it, it’s not surprising that LaHood’s comments created an uproar, and he was later forced to retract them.
LaHood has proved notably tone-deaf dealing with the media, at one point announcing that he didn’t know anything about transportation. After Toyota’s shares plunged 8 percent, he revisited the topic, “What I said in there was obviously a misstatement. What I meant to say ... 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.”
Today, the owner of a 2009 RAV-4 wrote me and described an incident in which his wife was almost killed yesterday when her car suddenly took off. Her foot was “not even on the accelerator when the engine started revving,” he said. And the floormats weren’t an issue. “I am afraid to drive this car,” he said plaintively. And he wanted my advice.
I can’t tell people not to drive their Toyotas. This is America, cars take us on more than 90 percent of trips, and for most of us public transportation isn’t an easy option. If it is for you, by all means consider it, but I do believe that this remains a relatively rare phenomenon. Your best bet is to continue driving but be on the alert for any sign of sudden acceleration (or, in the Prius, brakes that misbehave after hitting bumps in the road). Take a look here for tips on how to handle an incident if it occurs
I’d like to be able to say, “Just drive carefully and defensively until you bring your car in for the recall fix, then breathe easily,” but I’m afraid it isn’t that simple. The RAV-4 driver in Tucson experienced a problem that did not seem to be related to either of the recalls, and I’ve fielded many similar reports.
Attention is now focusing on possible electronic causes of the sudden acceleration problem, and the federal highway safety agency has begun an inquiry
. I’ve been researching that issue, and on one level it’s reassuring to learn that safety back-up is built into modern “throttle-by-wire” systems. “There is fail-safe and redundancy,” said Harvey Steele, a vice president at auto supplier Xilinx
Robert Hrtanek, a spokesman for another major supplier, Delphi Powertrain Systems, said the computers built into modern cars (sometimes as many as 100 of them) “may not have the processing power of your home PC, but they have a much longer shelf life and can work in very hot and very cold temperatures. They take input from the engine sensors and determine the proper amount of fuel and spark to get the engine to run most efficiently. If your engine is cold, for instance, it adjusts the fuel injection accordingly.”
All this tends to be reassuring, but we’re still left with wondering if we should be driving our Toyotas. This is a fast-moving story, with revelations almost every day, so I’m reluctant to make major pronouncements at this point. But pushed into a corner, I say keep driving that Toyota. If my opinion changes — and it might — I’ll let you know!
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