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Federal grand jury seeks details on Toyota steering flaw

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010; A16

Toyota said Tuesday that a federal grand jury in New York has subpoenaed information relating to defects in its steering relay rods, potentially widening investigations that began with reports of sudden, unintended acceleration.

The federal grand jury issued the subpoena to Toyota's U.S. subsidiary in late June, the company said.

It is the automaker's second subpoena from a federal grand jury this year. The first stemmed from complaints that in rare instances Toyota vehicles could accelerate out of control without the driver's foot on the pedal.

"The company and its subsidiary are sincerely cooperating with authorities on the probe," Toyota said Tuesday in a statement.

The company offered few details about the nature of the new grand jury inquiry. In May, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that it was investigating whether Toyota had delayed telling authorities about a defect in its steering relay rods.

That investigation involved a problem with the equipment on Toyota 4Runner sport-utility vehicles, T100 pickups and Toyota pickups, affecting some models from 1989 to 1998. The rod, which connects the steering wheel to the wheels, can break after wear and tear and cause drivers to lose control.

"It has the appearance of being a criminal investigation under the TREAD Act," said Sean Kane, a safety advocate who has researched the steering issue, referring to the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act, passed in 2000 after congressional investigations into the Ford Explorer and Firestone tires. "NHTSA has a strong case that Toyota may have misled the agency about the defect."

The U.S. safety agency has linked the defect to complaints involving at least 15 crashes, three deaths and seven injuries.

Attorneys for the family of an Idaho teenager killed in a 2007 crash have alleged that Toyota had been warned repeatedly of a problem with its steering rods.

Michael Levi Stewart died after the steering rod in his 1991 Toyota pickup snapped, leaving the truck to veer off the road and roll over, according to the lawsuit.

Toyota had issued a recall for the steering defect in September 2005 but only a fraction of those vehicles had been fixed, according to government filings by the automaker.

The automaker issued a similar recall for steering rods in Japan nearly a year before that, and the company's critics have said Toyota should have realized more quickly that the same problem existed in the United States. 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 explained, the problem seemed less likely to appear in the United States because Japanese drivers do more close-quarters maneuvering, such as parking in narrow spaces, that would put more stress on the steering.

In February, the company announced that a federal grand jury in New York had requested that Toyota and its subsidiaries hand over documents relating to unintended acceleration of Toyota vehicles and the braking system of the Prius.

At the same time, the company announced that it had received a voluntary request and a subpoena from the Los Angeles office of the Securities and Exchange Commission, seeking documents related to unintended acceleration of Toyota vehicles and the company's disclosure policies.

Since the complaints of "runaway Toyotas" received attention last fall, the automaker recalled about 6 million vehicles in the United States and more than 8.5 million worldwide.

More recently, the company has undertaken ad campaigns and offered financial incentives to reassure its customers.

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