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Former NHTSA chief defends 2007 Toyota investigation

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Former NHTSA chief defends 2007 Toyota investigation

Neil Roland

Automotive News -- February 4, 2010 - 4:40 pm ET

WASHINGTON -- A former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief defended the agency's handling of a 2007 investigation of unintended acceleration in Toyotas, saying NHTSA had to move quickly to alert consumers before all possible data could be collected.

“We had to get information out to vehicle owners as quickly as possible,” Nicole Nason, NHTSA administrator from 2006 to 2008, said today in a phone interview. “This was not a broken door-lock or a flickering headlight. This was a very significant safety problem.”

The inquiry has been cited by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., as evidence that Toyota Motor Corp. may not have been completely truthful about all its acceleration problems and that NHTSA may not have been as aggressive as it should have been.

In 2007, Toyota issued a recall of about 55,000 floor mats for 2007-08 Toyota Camry, Lexus ES and Lexus ES 350 cars after the NHTSA investigation confirmed the automaker's claim that acceleration problems stemmed from unsecured floor mats.

Last October, Toyota issued a much wider recall of 4 million vehicles after saying it found that accelerator pedals were trapped by the floor mats. The automaker's recall of 2.3 million vehicles last month was attributed to sticky gas pedals.

Both the October and January recalls included 2007-08 Camrys that also were part of Toyota's 2007 recall. In addition, the 2007-08 Lexus ES 350 was part of both the 2007 and October 2009 recalls.

“Only Toyota knows what they knew and when they knew it,” Nason said. “But it's important that there be trust between NHTSA and the automakers. If NHTSA believes that for any reason that information was being dripped out slowly to them, they should make an example of Toyota.”

Nason, who is an attorney, said that at one 2007 meeting, she asked NHTSA's chief engineer whether it were possible that faulty gas pedals could be the source of Toyota's problems.

She was told that the question was put to Toyota, and the automaker assured the agency that the problem was limited to loose floor mats.

“NHTSA doesn't wait until all information is in to get a recall notice out,” Nason said. “But then you keep working with the manufacturers, and you investigate to decide if additional models or years should be included.”

She said she did not know what follow-up investigation was conducted by NHTSA because she left the agency soon after the recall.

Nason, 39, a mother of three young children who is now writing a book about child safety, added: “I have no reason to doubt our work in 2007. The investigators are great detectives, and they ask tough questions.”

The 2007 study included a survey finding that at least three of every 100 Lexus ES 350 owners in Ohio, and one out of 10 respondents, reported unintended acceleration.

Twenty-four of the 59 owners who reported acceleration problems in the survey did not cite floor mat interference. No reason was suggested by NHTSA for their problems.

“In the last two weeks, NHTSA's been very aggressive,” said Stupak, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on oversight. “Where were they before that?”

As for Toyota, Stupak said the company has given conflicting reports of when its problems began.

Stupak and energy committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., have convened a Feb. 25 hearing on Toyota's problems.

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