Toyota hit by new surge of reported fatalities in vehicles

An accelerator pedal from a Toyota Hybrid Camry is replaced at Jack Taylor's Alexandria Toyota-Scion.
An accelerator pedal from a Toyota Hybrid Camry is replaced at Jack Taylor's Alexandria Toyota-Scion. (Alex Brandon/associated Press)
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By Brady Dennis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Federal officials have received a flurry of new complaints in recent weeks about deaths linked to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles, bringing the total number of alleged fatalities to 34 since 2000, according to government data.

Between 2000 and 2009, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received complaints alleging 21 deaths attributable to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles. Since Jan. 27, federal officials have received complaints alleging an additional 13 fatalities linked to the same issue in Toyota vehicles between 2005 and 2010.

The agency also has received a wave of new complaints in recent days about the popular Toyota Prius hybrid, thousands of which were recalled last week because of potential problems in the braking system. Before opening an investigation into the Prius issues on Feb. 3, the agency said it had received 124 consumer complaints. Since then, it has received nearly 1,000.

Transportation Department spokeswoman Olivia Alair said the NHTSA is "quickly gathering" more information on the additional complaints to help guide the government's examination of sudden acceleration, the Prius braking system and other issues.

"It is normal for NHTSA to receive an increase in consumer complaints after a recall is announced and the public learns of a safety defect," Alair said in a statement. "NHTSA takes every complaint seriously and reviews each one carefully."

A Toyota spokeswoman said Monday that the company also takes the reports seriously. "That's why we are taking steps to implement more stringent quality controls, investigate customer complaints more aggressively, keep open lines of communication with safety agencies and respond more quickly to safety issues we identify," said the spokeswoman, Cindy Knight.

The surge in complaints highlights the public's increased awareness of potential faults in Toyota vehicles and marks another setback for the embattled Japanese automaker. The company has recalled more than 8 million vehicles since November because of reports of sudden acceleration and steering and braking issues.

Last week, Toyota announced a global recall involving more than 400,000 Priuses and other hybrid cars with possible braking problems. On the same day, the Transportation Department said it was reviewing driver complaints about steering difficulties in the 2009-10 Toyota Corolla.

On Saturday, Toyota announced a voluntary safety recall to inspect the front drive shaft on some 2010 Tacoma four-wheel-drive trucks. Officials said the front shaft in about 8,000 vehicles might include a component that has cracks created during the manufacturing process, which could lead to separation of the drive shaft at the joint portion.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda has undertaken a campaign to restore consumer trust and the reputation of reliability that led to company's rise as the world's largest automaker. At a recent news conference in Tokyo, he apologized for the issues that prompted the massive recalls and vowed to "redouble our commitment to quality as the lifeline of our company."

In a Washington Post op-ed last week, he wrote that Toyota "has not lived up to the high standards we set for ourselves" and the standards expected by customers. Toyoda said he would seek to improve the company's quality-control operations and would aggressively investigate any concerns from consumers and government regulators.

As Toyota seeks to regain its footing, the company also is considering offering incentives or increasing the length of its warranties to spur sales and reassure wary consumers. One top Toyota executive on Monday told reporters at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention in Orlando that the company is focused on repairing cars for its customers and on regaining the public's trust.


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