Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Poll: Toyota dragged its feet on safety fixes

A majority of Americans think Toyota has failed to respond quickly enough to potential safety defects, and a significant minority — 31 percent — think it is unsafe to be in a Toyota or Lexus, according to a USA TODAY /Gallup Poll over the weekend.
What's more, those most likely to be among the 55 percent saying Toyota didn't react promptly to safety problems had the highest education and incomes: at least some postgraduate study and $90,000 yearly and up.

That is a target group for Toyota's high-profit Lexus brand. It's also a group more likely than most to buy cars in general, notes Jesse Toprak, vice president at auto researcher TrueCar.com.

"We aren't surprised by the poll results, given the intense focus on our recalls and speculation about causes," Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said. "We are working hard to earn public trust, to complete the recalls as quickly and conveniently as possible."

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Toyota has recalled more than 7.5 million vehicles in the U.S. because their gas pedals might stick or floor mats might jam the pedal. the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has linked unintended acceleration to at least 34 deaths.

Toyota also recalled 133,000 Prius and 14,000 similar Lexus HS 250h hybrids because their brakes might fail momentarily.

It is considering recalling close to 500,000 Corollas because of power-steering complaints, which NHTSA is investigating.

"I'm a little surprised that the number isn't higher than 31 percent, given that this company has been the subject of global negative publicity for weeks," said Lynne Doll, president of The Rogers Group, crisis communications specialists. "If elected officials had a disapproval rating of 'only' 31 percent they'd be delighted. There's a group who always will dislike you."

Rebound not impossible

Toyota has "huge brand equity" and can recover if it becomes aggressive on safety issues, she said.

Toprak said Toyota's issues have gotten big attention for the same reason golfer Tiger Woods' infidelity did: "It was unexpected. The cleaner your image, the bigger the damage."

The automaker faces its third congressional hearing into recent recalls today before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Based on questions it sent to the Department of Transportation Inspector General, the panel appears ready to shift focus toward alleged "internal deficiencies" and "government ethics" at NHTSA.

And the committee wants more data on industrywide complaints of unintended acceleration.

Automakers also are scheduled to report sales today, providing a look at sales damage to Toyota.

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