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Toyota unsure how to solve safety issues

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In tearful testimony before lawmakers, Tennessee resident Rhonda Smith detailes how her Lexus suddenly zoomed to 100 miles per hour. She described her nightmare ride in as "a near death experience."

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By Peter Whoriskey and Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Toyota's top U.S. executive told lawmakers on Tuesday that he is not certain the company has fixed its runaway car problems even though it has recalled millions of vehicles around the world.

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Although the automaker has blamed obstructing floor mats and sticky gas pedals for reports of cars accelerating out of control, lawmakers at a hearing on Capitol Hill appeared skeptical about the sometimes-conflicting accounts of what has gone wrong.

"Do you believe that the recall on the carpet changes and the recalls on the sticky pedals will solve the problem of sudden, unintended acceleration?" Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) asked James E. Lentz III, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA.

"Not totally," Lentz replied.

"What do you need to do?" Waxman asked.

"We need to continue to be vigilant and continue to investigate all of the complaints that we get from consumers -- that we have done a relatively poor job of doing in the past," Lentz said.

The hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee was jammed with spectators and news media from the United States and Japan, who heard emotional testimony about terrifying car rides, as well as engineering analysis and a lengthy corporate apology. Lentz at one point fought back tears recalling that he lost his brother in a car crash years ago.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of that," he said, "so I know what these families go through."

In the end, the hearing outlined but did not resolve the controversy that has rocked the world's largest automaker in recent weeks: What exactly has caused Toyota cars, in rare but occasionally fatal instances, to rev and accelerate out of control?

At another hearing Wednesday, Toyota President Akio Toyoda plans to face the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and attribute the company's troubles to rapid growth.

"I regret that this has resulted in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today, and I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced," he said in prepared remarks released ahead of the event.

On Tuesday, lawmakers first heard testimony from a retired Tennessee social worker whose Toyota 2007 Lexus ES 350 sped up to 100 miles per hour during a wild, six-mile ride in 2006. The car sped on even after the driver applied the emergency brake and shifted into neutral and then reverse.


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