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LaHood Backs Off ‘Stop Driving Toyotas’ Remark

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Wednesday reversed his recommendation that millions of Toyota owners affected by a massive recall "stop driving" the autos. LaHood said he misspoke and that owners should take their vehicles to a dealership for repair of defective gas pedals.

LaHood, speaking to a House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, earlier had this advice for Toyota owners: "Stop driving it. Take it to a Toyota dealer because they believe they have a fix for it."

LaHood's comments came on the same day officials in Japan and the U.S. announced wider probes into safety issues that involve the company's top-selling Prius hybrid.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said it's continuing to investigate the possibility of that electromagnetic interference might cause the throttle control systems in the vehicles to malfunction, but the agency has not seen evidence to support that yet.

LaHood accused the world's largest automaker of dragging its feet in its response to complaints about sticking accelerators, which resulted in a global recall of 4.6 million vehicles. The 2.3 million vehicles that were recalled in the U.S. had gas pedals that were made by CTS Corp. of Elkhart, Ind.

Toyota announced earlier this week that it had a fix for the problem and that dealers would get repair kits this week. The repair involves installing a steel shim a couple of millimeters thick in the pedal assembly, behind the top of the gas pedal, to eliminate the excess friction between two pieces of the accelerator mechanism.

Still, Toyota is facing growing criticism that it has not done enough to ensure the safety of its vehicles. In Japan, Toyota Vice President Shinichi Sasaki acknowledged that officials decided on the U.S. recall because of prodding from NHTSA.

LaHood said the U.S. government is considering civil penalties against the company for not addressing safety concerns faster.

Paul Eisenstein, publisher of the online automotive magazine TheDetroitBureau.com, said LaHood's shocking advice to Toyota owners might reflect the exasperation over the extent of the Toyota recall — as well as the growing sense that the public may not know everything.

"If it's found out that Toyota knew more than it's let on and longer than it's let on, I think this administration will move for civil penalties," Eisenstein said.

Complaints Over Prius Brakes

Eisenstein said his publication first reported on complaints of problems with the company's top-selling Prius hybrid six weeks ago.

In Japan, the company acknowledged Wednesday it is investigating potential problems with the brakes in the Prius.

But the fix for the sticking accelerators hasn't ended the Japanese automaker's problems. In Japan, the company acknowledged it is also investigating potential problems with the brakes in the top-selling Prius hybrid.

Japanese Transport Ministry official Masaya Ota said the government has received 14 complaints since July about the 2010 Prius model. The complaints include a head-on car crash at an intersection in which the Prius' brakes allegedly failed, Ota said. Two people were slightly injured in the wreck.

"The Prius driver in the accident told police that a brake did not work," he said. "Other Prius drivers also complained brakes were not so sharp." The complaints in Japan involved vehicles that were made in Japan, he said.

In the U.S., NHTSA has received about 100 complaints involving the brakes of the new Prius model. Two crashes resulted in injuries.

Eisenstein said if the much-lauded Prius is tainted by safety issues, it could send the company over the edge despite having a huge reservoir of goodwill.

Toyota Safety Concerns Multiply

Toyota is now facing safety concerns on three fronts: accelerator pedals that stick when depressed, along with an earlier, similar problem in which accelerator pedals got stuck in floor mats; potential electrical problems; and problems with the brakes in the Prius.

The company has seen auto sales in the U.S. and elsewhere plummet following massive recalls and the temporary halt of sales of eight models — including the popular Camry and Corolla. Toyota's January sales fell below 100,000 a month for the first time in more than a decade.

Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst for Edmunds.com, said the way the dealerships handle the repairs will be a big factor in whether Toyota retains or loses its customers.

"The dealership is really going to make or break Toyota in how they handle these recalls," Caldwell said. "Especially with something safety-related, you have to treat people well." She predicted customers will be willing to give the automaker another chance because Toyota has had a good track record for safety and reliability.

Still, Toyota is facing growing criticism that it has not done enough to ensure the safety of its vehicles.

LaHood said Tuesday that the government was considering civil penalties for Toyota for having dragged its feet on safety concerns.

Toyota's executive vice president, Shinichi Sasaki, acknowledged Tuesday in a news conference from Nagoya, Japan, that it took prodding from NHTSA officials for the company to decide on the U.S. recall.

Written and reported by NPR's Deborah Tedford, with reporting by Anthony Kuhn, Carol Van Dam and The Associated Press.

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