By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; A08
U.S. regulators stepped up their investigation on Tuesday of how quickly Toyota Motor Corp. recalled vehicles after discovering safety problems, asking the Japanese automaker to turn over an extensive list of documents.
Since September, Toyota has had three major recalls of about 8 million vehicles worldwide involving brake problems and unintended acceleration, and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is seeking to determine whether Toyota recalled its vehicles in a "timely manner."
NHTSA officials said the agency is using its legal authority to compel Toyota to turn over documents offering more details about how and when the automaker discovered defects with the accelerator pedals in approximately 5.4 million vehicles. Federal law requires that automakers notify NHTSA within five days of finding a safety defect and then promptly conduct a recall, agency officials said.
"Our top priority is safety, and we expect that all manufacturers address automotive safety issues quickly and in a forthright manner," said David L. Strickland, NHTSA's administrator.
Toyota said it is cooperating with safety regulators in their inquiries and planned to "provide all the information they have requested."
"Toyota takes its responsibility to advance vehicle safety seriously and to alert government officials of any safety issue in a timely manner," the company said. The company has 30 to 60 days, depending on specific requests, to provide the documents.
The document request, which is considered rare for NHTSA, could lead to a civil fine of up to $16.4 million if Toyota is found to have violated regulations. The last major fine of an automaker involved General Motors paying a $1 million penalty in a windshield wiper recall in 2004, according to government safety regulators.
Next week, Toyota and NHTSA officials are expected to go before congressional leaders for hearings on the recalls. Some lawmakers have questioned how quickly Toyota and safety regulators reacted to problems in vehicles and allegations that 34 deaths occurred in connection with Toyota sudden-acceleration problems.
Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst at Edmunds.com, said safety regulators and Toyota are doing "a lot of posturing" before the hearings.
"Everyone is trying to put themselves in the best light possible," she said. "Many people think NHTSA didn't act fast enough. And others say they knew of problems with Toyota vehicles for quite a while. Everybody's covering themselves here."
She said the recalls have tarnished the reputation of Toyota, which was best known for quality.
In three letters totaling 53 pages, the government asked Toyota to provide a wide range of documents, including consumer complaints, reports from auto dealers, sales figures, design changes and third-party arbitration proceedings. It also asked for information about earlier Toyota recalls in Europe.
"These types of requests are unprecedented in the sense that they're seeking very detailed, sensitive information about Toyota," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "If the agency finds that Toyota had information and knowledge about these problems and failed to do recalls in a timely fashion, they're going to get fined.
"They could potentially use the evidence they find about the recall in Europe and say, 'Why didn't you do a recall here sooner?' "
Toyota also said on Tuesday that it will temporarily shut down production at two plants, one in Kentucky and one in Texas. Mike Goss, a Toyota spokesman, said the company's plant in San Antonio has scheduled production breaks for the weeks of March 15 and April 12. A plant in Georgetown, Ky., has scheduled Feb. 26 to stop production and might not produce vehicles for other days in March and April. The shutdowns are in part for Toyota to deal with the recalls and to make sure its dealers don't have excess vehicles on their lots. Goss said workers at the plants will be retained and paid during the production shutdowns and will receive additional training.