February 25, 2011 9:26AM

Pressuring Toyota into an Overcautious Recall

With the news that Toyota has agreed to extend its floor mat and gas pedal recall to another 2.1 million vehicles, mostly SUVs, certain press outlets may slip back into the tone of coverage (Toyota in crisis! Safety mysteries still unresolved!) so prevalent last year before the scare was deflated. Some perspective:

  • As you learned if you read all the way down to paragraph 14 of the hyperventilating L.A. Times report — and never learned at all from some other reports — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is now closing its investigation of alleged sudden acceleration problems in Toyotas. That’s a huge win for the Japanese automaker and the real news of the day.
  • NHTSA insisted, however — presumably as its price for stamping the case as closed — that Toyota expand its recall as happened yesterday.
  • Toyota’s stock went up on the news, not down, suggesting that in investors’ view the price was well worth paying for the automaker to rid itself of the regulatory entanglement.
  • Floor mat jams that obstruct proper operation of the brake and gas pedal are an exceedingly, even freakishly rare cause of unintended acceleration accidents. While they do seem to have been a factor in one much‐​publicized crash, they have nothing to do with the vast majority of unintended acceleration episodes, which as we now know (or knew all along) arise from drivers’ hitting the wrong pedal by mistake.
  • To the extent floor mat jams are a real safety worry, the main way to avoid them is to not throw extra mats in, and watch out for mats that aren’t intended for the make/​model, may be prone to slip around, or both. The New York Daily News spoke to a Toyota manager in Brooklyn: “The biggest problem is people put in an extra mat, and that’s been the real issue,” said Michael Ianelli. “They’re not supposed to put in a second mat.” Much of the recall seems to be aimed at engineering around the problem of careless user maintenance.
  • Murmurings are already being heard that similarly designed Toyota vehicles sold in other parts of the world aren’t subject to the recall — another hint the company may be trying more to keep NHTSA happy than address what it views as a major safety issue.

Millions of dollars will now be spent with very dubious safety benefits. But at least a federal agency will be able to boast that it “did something.”