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Toyota used its 'game plan' to escape a major early recall

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010; A01

As congressional investigators learned last month, Toyota Motor lobbyists claimed last year to have saved the company $100 million by fending off a 2007 federal investigation into unintended acceleration.

Toyota and agency officials dismissed the claim as an idle boast.

But a closer look at the 2007 investigation, revealed in agency records and internal Toyota e-mails, shows that after federal investigators at the time diagnosed a number of potential dangers in Toyota cars and trucks, the automaker resisted the findings and in the end escaped a broad recall that could have cost millions of dollars.

Investigators with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told Toyota in 2007 that the design of Toyota pedals or floor pans could allow floor mats to entrap the accelerator. They saw a problem in Camrys, Priuses, Avalons and Lexus ES350s. Moreover, they believed that any type of floor mat could pose a danger.

But the company, which had developed a "game plan" for handling the inquiry, ignored NHTSA's broad findings and agreed only to a minor recall of a single type of floor mat.

The agency, which has the authority to order a recall, did not push for more.

With the recalls of millions of Toyotas in recent weeks, the agency has been faulted by critics for failing to wield its enforcement power and opting instead to cajole automakers to make cars safe.

In the fall, after two years and 20 more deaths attributed to unintended acceleration, Toyota disclosed that, just as regulators had warned, accelerator pedals and some floor pans in 12 different models would need to be fixed to prevent the floor mats from entrapping the accelerator. They told consumers to remove any driver's-side floor mat in the cars.

Toyota declined to answer questions this week about its lobbyists' efforts in 2007 to limit the scope of the recall.

In a statement Thursday, NHTSA portrayed Toyota as unyielding during those discussions.

Moreover, the agency said that while its engineers had concluded that the Toyota pedal and floor pan design could pose a danger, that alone was not enough to force a recall.

"In order for NHTSA to push a company to recall a vehicle for a safety defect, we must have evidence that it presents an unreasonable risk to safety," it said.

"The investigation was contentious," the agency said. "After upgrading the investigation, and after many discussions and meetings with Toyota, the company remained resistant to recalling the floor mats."

Toyota finally agreed to the limited floor mat recall, which the agency said it believed at the time to be "an effective remedy."

It wasn't until a San Diego accident claimed the life of a California Highway Patrol officer and three family members in August 2009 that NHTSA fully recognized the danger, it said.

Hardly a new concern

The agency's initial suspicions, however, date back much further.

NHTSA investigators opened the floor mat inquiry in March 2007 after five complaints concerning Toyota's 2007 Lexus ES350. Three involved crashes.

Then, over the summer, it broadened. A 2007 Camry had gone speeding out of control in San Jose, killing the driver of another vehicle, a 39-year-old father of three. The floor mat appeared to have been involved. The investigators began to look at 2007 Camrys.

At the same time, other data available to NHTSA, including insurance statistics and consumer complaints, were similarly showing a rise in unintended-acceleration events in Toyotas, a phenomenon the agency had been opening and closing investigations into for years.

Some at the agency apparently did not seem to consider the floor mat inquiry a serious one, however.

"I ran into a lot of different investigators and ODI [Office of Defects Investigation] staff and when asked why I was there, when I told them the ES350 floormats, they either laughed or rolled their eyes in disbelief," Chris Santucci, a Toyota lobbyist, wrote in an August 2007 e-mail.

In the course of the inquiry, NHTSA asked Toyota for any reports of unintended acceleration involving the ES350. In a departure from other investigations, however, it did not ask Toyota for any such reports regarding the Camry, or about the Avalon or Prius, the other cars involved in incidents NHTSA had been reviewing.

Nevertheless, the e-mails show that NHTSA investigators had already begun to diagnose some of the same problems that Toyota would not admit to for another two years.

NHTSA investigators "believe that something about the throttle pedal or floorpan design lends itself to easier jamming than other models produced in the past," said one of the internal Toyota e-mails from Chris Tinto, vice president of regulatory affairs for the company. "They also believe that the Prius, Camry and Avalon may also be prone to being overly sensitive to floormat jamming and claim to have some evidence of such; they claim that jamming can occur with Toyota mats or aftermarket mats."

Frustrated that Toyota was dismissing NHTSA's analysis, one of the agency's top regulators, Daniel C. Smith, called Tinto in August 2007 to warn that the agency considered the floor mat danger a "serious issue."

The two Toyota lobbyists dealing with NHTSA knew their way around the safety agency. Just a few years before, Santucci had been working for NHTSA. Tinto is also a former NHTSA employee.

One of Tinto's first moves after the call was to buy some time, according to e-mails. A meeting between NHTSA's engineers and lower-level Toyota staff members was arranged.

"I will not attend, to insure that NHTSA does not try to negotiate any next steps at this phase," Tinto wrote in the e-mail, which was released to Congress.

One of the key arguments between the automaker and the regulators boiled down to this: Toyota said that there was no danger if consumers correctly installed the proper Toyota floor mats; therefore, there were no defects and no grounds for a recall. NHTSA officials worried that trouble could arise for a motorist who merely drove in a car with an inappropriate floor mat. The potential danger was too grave to ignore.

In the end, the automaker would agree to recall only one kind of floor mat, affecting fewer than 55,000 cars.

Importantly, the pedals and floor pans that were suspected of making pedals vulnerable to entrapment would not have to be fixed. It was this aspect of the arrangement that probably led to the boast the lobbyists made that they had saved the company $100 million.

On the same day Toyota announced the recall, NHTSA issued a little-noticed consumer alert offering a small clue to the investigators' original, broader worries.

"Of course, depending on vehicle design, it is possible for unsecured floor mats to interfere with accelerator or brake pedals in a wide range of vehicles," the one-page release noted in its last paragraph.

After the investigation was closed and the limited floor mat recall was conducted, the incidents of runaway Toyotas continued, sometimes fatally.

The August 2009 death of the California Highway Patrol officer and his family in a Lexus ES350 has been attributed to a floor mat, for example. So has the 2008 death of Dustin Ricardo, 27, whose Camry sped into a tree in Clarksville, Tenn.; so has the death of Dustin Mullett, 36, in Worthington, Iowa, whose Tundra reportedly reached speeds of 100 mph before crashing.

In many incidents of unintended acceleration in Toyotas, the exact cause has not been determined.

'Wins for Toyota'

Two years after the investigation closed, company officials in Washington held a presentation for their new boss, Yoshimi Inaba. In a PowerPoint slide titled "Wins for Toyota -- Safety Group," it talked about saving the company $100 million by holding off a finding of a defect.

"What's so rotten about this whole case is that Toyota knew they had a problem," said Michael Rowan, the attorney for Dustin Ricardo's survivors: a daughter, now 4, and a wife. "They decided that if some people lost their lives, then so be it. It was pure greed."

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