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

Last year, Toyota took the extraordinary step of suspending the manufacture and sale of some of its most popular models because of a flaw in their accelerators. Toyota executives soon were called to Capitol Hill for testimony and a probe was launched to find the cause of the problem.

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

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.

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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.

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