US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on Sunday his department was aware some Toyota vehicles had “unintended acceleration” issues in late 2003, three years before it launched a preliminary probe into sticky Toyota floor mats.
LaHood’s remarks on his blog followed a disclosure by the US’ top automobile insurer, State Farm, that it reported Toyota acceleration problems to the Department of Transportation (DOT) in February 2004.
Toyota has recalled nearly 9 million vehicles worldwide following a series of complaints and a slew of lawsuits linking vehicle flaws to 30 deaths across the US. Toyota president Akio Toyoda is expected to face a grilling by a key congressional committee tomorrow that could also criticize the DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) allegedly slow response to the complaints.
LaHood warned much of what has been written about NHTSA’s response to State Farm’s report was “factually incorrect or incomplete.”
“Today’s Detroit News has it right, however,” he said, referring to the Michigan daily’s story about an NHTSA probe of Toyota acceleration complaints in December 2003, “before State Farm supplied any information on that topic to the safety agency in February of 2004.”
Up to now, the DOT and NHTSA had said that in March 2007 they launched a preliminary probe into complaints about acceleration pedals sticking to floor mats on some Toyota models, without indicating if they had looked into such problems earlier.
“State Farm did contact NHTSA in 2007 on this subject, but the initial contact was in February 2004. We were able to recently update this time frame as we reviewed our data in response to public interest in issues regarding Toyota models,” LaHood said. “What’s missing from much of the other coverage I’ve seen is the fact that, over the years, NHTSA officials actually asked State Farm to provide that information so they could incorporate it into their ongoing vehicle defect investigations. As they do information from all sources.”
Last April the NHTSA requested State Farm’s list of claims “alleging unintended acceleration for all vehicle models and model years between 2006 and 2009,” LaHood said.
“So, the idea that NHTSA is in the business of ignoring information — valuable or otherwise — from automobile insurers, safety organizations or consumers is just plain wrong,” he said.
Republican member of the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee Dan Burton told Fox Television on Sunday that Toyoda’s presence at the committee hearing tomorrow, although voluntary, was necessary.
“I don’t think we could force him to come, but I think the publicity and the overall impact on Toyota if he doesn’t testify would be severe,” Burton said. “He agreed he’d better be there.”
According to one of the documents obtained by Detroit’s Free Press daily, Toyota’s top US executive, Yoshimi Inaba, in July boasted in an internal presentation that the company had saved US$100 million by negotiating with the government a limited recall of defective equipment, such as floor mats.
A spokesman for House oversight committee chairman Darrell Issa said Inaba’s reported comment raised questions about US regulators’ commitment to “due diligence” and Toyota’s promptness in reporting potential safety problems.
In reaction to the Free Press report, Toyota USA on Sunday issued this statement: “Our first priority is the safety of our customers and to conclude otherwise on the basis of one internal presentation is wrong.”
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