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Evan Handler

Evan Handler

Posted: January 28, 2010 10:05 PM

If My Car Is Being "Recalled," Why Aren't You Taking it Back?

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I own three cars. All of them are Toyotas. The first one I bought is a 2000 Solara, purchased when it had 12,000 miles on it. I drove it for six years, then passed it on to my wife. The second one I bought is a 2006 Prius that I bought new. For the past three and a half years the Prius has been my car. Last year, in January, I bought a 2009 Camry, with 8,000 miles on it, for my wife. The Solara became the car used by our child's weekday/workday caretaker, to get to and from our house for work, and to pick our daughter up from school and various appointments, as her own car became disabled. The 2009 Camry is now the car my wife uses to go to work every day. It's the car she uses to take our three year old daughter to physical therapy, to school, and to the park.

As you can see, we're fairly utilitarian in our automobile usage. We didn't buy the cheapest cars in the world, but they're certainly not among the fanciest. Two of the three were bought used, though in very new condition, still under their original warranties. What I want, when I buy a car, is to own one that works. If anything goes wrong with it, I want the manufacturer to be responsible for the repair.

Our newest car, the 2009 Camry, is now one of 9 million automobiles worldwide for which the company has issued a "recall." Usually the term "recall" is used to describe a situation in which a product is to brought back to the manufacturer, to be either altered or replaced. It's generally a tactic that's used only as a last resort, when a company has no other alternative. In the case of a 2009 Toyota Camry, the "recall" has been issued due to a design flaw of the accelerator pedal, which can make the pedal stick in the open, depressed, position. This can lead to unintended acceleration. It can lead to accidents. It has already caused a number of deaths.

"A stuck open accelerator pedal may result in very high vehicle speeds and make it difficult to stop a vehicle, which could cause a crash, serious injury or death," Toyota spokesman Irv Miller has said.

But my 2009 Camry, in spite of the announced "recall," is not being returned to Toyota. Not because I still want it. I don't. It's not being returned because Toyota has not yet figured out how to fix it. So, in spite of announcing a "recall," all Toyota has done is to issue some warnings, to state that they're "working on" a solution, and to instruct my wife and me to be alert to the problem. If it manifests, we're supposed to apply the brake firmly, shift the car into neutral (or, if that's not possible, to turn off the ignition altogether, which would leave the power steering and power brakes without any power), pull over to the side of the road, and then call a Toyota dealer to come get the car. That's assuming the unintended acceleration hasn't propelled us into another vehicle, or over an embankment, as has already happened to other drivers.

Maybe I'm too much of a worrier, but I'm not comfortable with the situation. Toyota has offered some comfort to others like myself. In addition to the concise instruction on how we should handle it if our car starts to behave in uncontrollable fashion, and in addition to Mr. Miller's rather sober assessment of the possible repercussions, Toyota has said, "We would also like to reassure customers: the potential accelerator pedal issue only occurs in very rare circumstances."

Hey, Toyota: That doesn't comfort me one bit.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has found that sudden acceleration events in Toyota vehicles have led to 19 deaths in the past decade, nearly twice the number of deaths associated with similar events in cars manufactured by all other automakers combined. Hence, the "recall," in which my vehicle not actually being taken back. In this "recall," I'm being told to keep driving it.

Beginning on September 29, 1982 seven people died from Tylenol capsules that had been tampered with, and poisoned, by a still undetermined individual. On October 5, 1982, Johnson and Johnson issued a nationwide recall (note the word) of Tylenol products. An estimated 31 million bottles were in circulation, with a retail value of over $100 million. The company also advertised in the national media for individuals not to consume any products that contained acetaminophen. When it was determined that only capsules were tampered with, they offered to exchange all Tylenol capsules already purchased by the public with solid tablets.

Recall. Johnson and Johnson issued a recall. That means they took back all the capsules, even though almost all of them were probably safe, and destroyed them. Customers were given a safe replacement product. There were 31 million bottles in circulation, and seven deaths.

Toyota's (as yet) make-believe recall involves 9 million current vehicles, similar models to which have caused 19 deaths. But my wife and I are being told to continue driving our daughter in their car, because the problem only occurs "in very rare circumstances." By my count, the problem occurs almost three times as often as as deaths from Tylenol occurred in 1982, while the potential problem causing those deaths exists in less than one-third the number of products.

Were Tylenol consumers told in 1982 to call the manufacturer if they took a pill that made them start to feel ill? No. They were told to destroy the product, or return it to the manufacturer for replacement. So why am I being told to continue driving a car that has a greater chance of killing someone than Tylenol did in 1982?

My guess is it's because a car is a whole lot more expensive to replace than a bottle of pills. And that's true. But my wife and daughter will not be any more easily replaced than were the people who died from poisoned Tylenol. So, as you might imagine, I'm not satisfied. And I don't think other owners of compromised Toyotas should be, either.

Apparently now the U.S. House of Representatives will hold a February 25 hearing on the accelerator issues that led Toyota to issue their massive "recall," which - so far, at least - isn't really a recall at all. My advice for a first order of business would be to make sure that the company actually recalls the cars it's supposedly "recalled." Because, so far, that's not what they've done.

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