By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010; A11
Federal regulators are opening a second investigation into whether Toyota delayed notifying government authorities of a dangerous defect, this one affecting the steering systems of nearly 1 million sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks.
The probe by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration comes a little more than a month after the agency fined the automaker $16. 4 million for waiting at least four months before notifying safety officials about a "sticky pedal" defect. That sanction was the largest financial penalty imposed by the U.S. government on an automaker.
The new investigation involves a problem with the steering-relay rod on Toyota 4Runner SUVs, Toyota T100 pickups and Toyota pickups affecting some 1989 through 1998 models. The rod, which connects the steering wheel to the wheels, can break after wear and tear and cause drivers to lose control. The safety agency has linked the defect to complaints involving at least 15 crashes, three deaths and seven injuries.
Toyota issued a recall for the steering defect in September 2005. It had issued a similar recall in Japan nearly a year before that, and the company's critics have said Toyota and NHTSA should have realized more quickly that the same problem existed in the United States.
Automakers are required to notify NHTSA within five working days of learning that their vehicles have a safety defect.
Toyota explained at the time that the first recall was issued only in Japan because the company had no similar information regarding the defect in the United States. Moreover, they said they thought the problem was unlikely to appear in the United States because Japanese drivers do more close-quarters maneuvering, such as for narrow parking spaces, that would put more stress on the steering.
On Friday, according to NHTSA, the agency was alerted to 41 complaints filed by U.S. consumers prior to the 2004 recall in Japan, indicating that Toyota had information at the time indicating a recall was necessary.
"NHTSA has taken swift action since first receiving copies of these complaints on Friday," NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said.
Toyota said in a statement that it "is reviewing the information request from NHTSA and will cooperate with the agency's investigation."
Some consumer advocates said the incident reflects poorly on Toyota as well as the agency.
"Toyota said they turned the cars harder in Japan because they have tighter parking spaces -- that's poppycock," said Joan Claybrook, a consumer advocate and former NHTSA chief. "NHTSA was asleep at the wheel."
NHTSA learned that Toyota before the 2004 recall had received complaints from U.S. consumers about the faulty steering rod from a California law firm representing the family of an Idaho teen killed when his 1991 Toyota pickup crashed.
"Toyota was clearly warned by at least 40 U.S. customers that their steering rods had snapped and they were losing control of their trucks and pickups," said John Kristensen, a California lawyer representing the family of Michael Levi Stewart. "And then they told the U.S. government that there was no similar information in the U.S.? That was completely false."
Stewart's truck veered off the road and rolled over after the steering rod snapped, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that at the time of the 2007 accident neither the owners nor the prior owners had received a notice of the safety recall.
The recall notice appears to have reached only a fraction of the vehicles affected. Only about 314,000 of the 978,000 affected vehicles were actually fixed by Toyota, according to a government filing by the automaker.
The problems in the steering-relay rod recall show why the auto-safety reforms being considered on Capitol Hill should include criminal penalties for violations, consumer advocates said. Currently, fines are capped at $16.4 million per incident.