Congressional investigators probe Toyota's runaway cars

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 30, 2010

Congressional investigators have begun a probe of Toyota's "runaway" cars, and will look closely at the interaction between the automaker and the federal agency charged with keeping dangerous vehicles off of the road.

Officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have been wrangling for at least five years with the automaker over complaints that cars were accelerating without cause, according to the Center for Auto Safety.

Investigators have requested that agency administrator David L. Strickland provide them with the dates that the NHTSA became aware of each allegation of unintended acceleration, the actions that the agency undertook to examine each allegation, and the substance of any corrective actions.

"One of the key issues is, 'Should the agency have known about this before?' " said Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator and a former head of the Washington-based advocacy group Public Citizen. "And what did Toyota know and when did it know it?"

What is clear from agency records and interviews is that, since 2007, across three recalls, there seem to be at least some early hints that the safety issues were broader than initially portrayed, and that the safety agency may have prompted the automaker to act on the complaints.

On Aug. 8, 2007, the agency opened a probe into whether floor mats were causing the unintended acceleration.

The previous month, a driver on a California interstate had reportedly traveled at speeds in excess of 100 mph for about eight miles before crashing, killing the occupant of another vehicle.

It wasn't until the next month that Toyota issued a recall for a relatively limited set of cars, citing the floor mats. The campaign involved 30,500 Lexus ES 350s and 24,500 Toyota Camrys.

At the time, NHTSA wrote in a strikingly prescient conclusion that "throttle entrapment due to improperly installed floor mats could be a concern in all vehicles."

In a statement Friday night, Toyota said, "We have fulfilled all of our responsibilities in a timely manner."

Over the next two years, NHTSA collected records on at least 50 unwanted acceleration incidents involving Toyota and Lexus vehicles, according to agency records. On Aug. 28, a California Highway Patrol officer and three family members were killed after their Lexus zoomed out of control.

By September, the agency was on the verge of opening another formal investigation into the problem.

Citing the floor mat problem again, NHTSA alerted owners of more Lexus and Toyota vehicles that the accelerator could get stuck. "This is an urgent matter," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "For everyone's sake, we strongly urge owners of these vehicles to remove mats or other obstacles that could lead to unintended acceleration."

Toyota issued another recall, this time of 3.8 million vehicles.

In recent weeks, the automaker and the agency wrangled again over the discovery of a defect in the accelerator pedal. Federal officials indicated that it was at the regulator's insistence that Toyota issued the recall, which covered millions more vehicles.

In an interview this week with WGN (720 AM) radio in Chicago, LaHood added, "We were the ones that really met with Toyota, our department, our safety folks, and told them, 'You've got to do the recall.' "

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