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Toyota's totally bizarre recall

Why would Toyota issue a recall designed to make vehicles less safe?

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- This fall, Toyota will voluntarily recall nearly 160,000 Toyota Tundra pickups so that they can be made less safe for children riding in the front seat.

No, that's not a mistake - at least not on our part.

The recall, announced Monday, is meant to make Tundras comply with a set of safety regulations. The rules say that vehicles built after 2002 must have a child-seat anchor system known as LATCH in the front seat if they also have a front-seat airbag shut-off switch.

The Tundras in question were built with an airbag shut-off switch but not the LATCH system.

The solution? Spend lots of money and inconvenience customers...to remove the airbag shut-off switch.

The move not only doesn't enhance the safety of these vehicles, it actually makes the vehicles unsafe for small children riding in the front seat.

Those shut-off switches exist because airbags can injure and even kill small children even in otherwise minor crashes.

Meanwhile, even without a LATCH system (which stands for lower anchorages and tethers for children), parents can still install safety seats using seatbelts.

Toyota originally discovered the compliance issue and, in a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in July 2005, the company asked regulators to let them to ignore it as "inconsequential to safety."

NHTSA denied that petition. So Toyota asked NHTSA to reconsider, arguing that the solution would be worse than the problem.

"[We] believe that the agency should understand that the likely remedy is to remove the airbag cut-off switches," Toyota lawyers wrote to NHTSA in October of 2005.

Toyota has no other choice, Chris Tinto, Toyota's vice president for regulatory affairs, told CNNMoney.com. Placing the LATCH system in the trucks' front seats would have been far too expensive.

"We still think it's better with the cut-off switches in," said Tinto said. But rules are rules, so it's out with the switches.

What's more, to comply with the rule, Toyota is currently building new Tundra trucks without the switches, Tinto said.

Of course, regardless of LATCH systems or airbag cut-off switches, children are always safest in a back seat if at all possible. The Tundra trucks being recalled do have back seats, albeit small ones. But people sometimes put small children in the front seats of cars and trucks for various reasons. For example, according to NHTSA, the Tundra's back seats are too small to fit rear-facing seats, the kind that infants ride in.

In its final decision. published on June 28, 2006, NHTSA pointed out that the method a manufacturer might choose to remedy a compliance issue is not a determining factor when deciding that it must be fixed, so Toyota's warning made no difference.

Any issue NHTSA might have with Toyota's solution to the problem will have to wait for another round of memos.

"We are closely reviewing Toyota's remedy," said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for NHTSA.

Related:

Report: Toyota recalling Tundras

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