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Toyota Recall No. 5 In All-Time List

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Just how big is the Toyota recall? Is the measure of the carmaker's problem the degree of danger its created or is it the company's less then forthright response to complaints when they first surfaced. Well, joining us to address those questions now is Ken Bensinger of The Los Angeles Times, who by the way, did much of the reporting on the problem accelerator in some Toyota models. Welcome to the program, Ken Bensinger.

Mr. KEN BENSINGER (The Los Angeles Times): Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And first, in the annals of automobile recalls, how big is the Toyota recall?

Mr. BENSINGER: Its big, but it is not the biggest. Looks like its about the fifth biggest recall if we're taking a look at the first Toyota recall, meaning the floor mat recall, which is standing at nearly 5.4 million vehicles. That would make it the fifth largest recall in U.S. history. So its up there, but its not number one, that belongs to Ford.

SIEGEL: Ford, which recall was that?

Mr. BENSINGER: Thats actually an ongoing recall thats reached about 14.1 million vehicles and has to do with a cruise control switch that can cause an engine fire. And that keeps growing. They actually added a couple of million to that last year.

SIEGEL: As long as were at it, why dont you give us two and three and four?

Mr. BENSINGER: Number two also belongs to the blue oval as Ford is called. Its another Ford one and that was in the 90s for some ignition systems that also caused fires. Fires seemed to be a recurring problem for Ford. Number three was all the way back to 1971 and that had to do with failing engine mounts, which among other things could cause unexpected acceleration of all things. And that was the General Motors problem. And number four belonged to General Motors as well and that was suspension bolt that could fall loose, which led to steering problems.

SIEGEL: And those are all, as you say, bigger than the Toyota recall of - at least of last year.

Mr. BENSINGER: Thats right. They're bigger than the floor mat recall. Toyota, of course, has a separate recall, which is the sticky pedal recall and some people are adding those together. But Toyota would be quick to point out those are two separate recall issues. But the grand total of those two added together in the U.S. is about 7.6, 7.7 million vehicles.

SIEGEL: I have to put my cards on the table here as the owner of both a Toyota and a Volkswagen, for the VW Im not at all surprised anymore to get a notification of some recall for something. How common are recalls generally?

Mr. BENSINGER: Recalls are not uncommon. So its important to note that not all recalls are alike. But to put things in context last year, there were 15.2 million vehicles recalled in the whole U.S. and that was a big year for recalls. In 2008, there were 8.6 million vehicles recalled. So last year was a big one. Toyota played a big role to that, it was number one in recalls last year with about 4.9 million vehicles recalled. And that was the first time ever that Toyota had been number one in that list. But its also important to remember that recalls run the gambit from serious problems like the ones that Toyota is looking at now to minor things like radios that dont work the way theyre supposed to work.

SIEGEL: Does the way in which Toyota responded to complaints - the complaints, which ultimately led to the recall - does that stand out as egregious or is it typical of the way that automakers have had recalls?

Mr. BENSINGER: Well, I would hasten to add that no automaker likes to do a recall. Recalls are expensive in a direct cash outlay. And in a serious safety issue they're expensive in terms of their feeling that it hurts their image and can reduce sales. So, no automaker likes to do recalls. But the reporting that I and my colleague have done in the last few months indicates that Toyota seemed to go to great lengths to underplay the nature of the complaints it was receiving on these kind of issues, specifically the sudden acceleration issues.

They've clearly been hearing complaints about this for, you know, near a decade and found ways to suggest that they werent relevant, they didnt qualify or otherwise didnt indicate a problem. And I think now that that's coming to bite them, sort of, in the behind, these are specifically some of the issues that Congress says its going to look at in the next couple of weeks when they hold hearings from Toyota is how much Toyota knew and when it knew it and why it didnt do something about it before.

SIEGEL: Business reporter Ken Bensinger of The Los Angeles Times. Thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. BENSINGER: Its my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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