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Lawmakers focus on Tacoma complaints

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Lawmakers focus on Tacoma complaints

NHTSA records suggest unintended acceleration cases were more than 'minor drivability issues'

Neil Roland

Automotive News -- February 22, 2010 - 12:01 am ET

When lawmakers question Toyota President Akio Toyoda and other Toyota Motor Corp. executives this week, they will be honing in on how the automaker handled the high number of safety-related complaints about its Tacoma pickup truck.

In 2008, Toyota said hundreds of unintended-acceleration complaints about the Tacoma reflected "minor drivability issues and are not indicative of a safety-related defect."

The automaker reaffirmed that position this month to congressional investigators, despite a record of accidents and injuries.

"After three years, hundreds of complaints and several massive recalls, I still don't think we've gotten all the answers" about the Tacoma, Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., said in an e-mail to Automotive News last week.

Gordon is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will question Jim Lentz, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. president, on Tuesday, Feb. 23.

The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Ed Towns, D-N.Y., sent a letter this month asking Yoshimi Inaba, Toyota's North America president, to explain "the seemingly high number of complaints" about the Tacoma.

The oversight panel is preparing to question Toyoda and Inaba on Wednesday, Feb. 24.

514 complaints

An Automotive News review has found that at the time of a 2008 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation of the Tacoma, there had been 514 complaints and legal claims about the truck's speed control, the term the agency uses for unintended acceleration.

Of these, at least 71 involved accidents that resulted in 17 injuries, according to Toyota's own data provided to NHTSA.

Since the federal agency closed its investigation of the 2006-07 Tacomas without action, 49 additional complaints have been filed with NHTSA alleging 17 crashes and four injuries.

"Toyota's responses were disingenuous and less than forthright," said Sean Kane, president of the Safety Research & Strategies consulting firm, who is scheduled to testify before the House Oversight Committee on Feb. 24. "They made it a semantics issue."

The 2006 Tacoma has been the subject of more consumer complaints of unintended acceleration than any other Toyota model, followed by the 2005 Tacoma, according to a Feb. 5 Safety Research study.

"Toyota takes all customer concerns seriously," Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said in an e-mail. "That's why we are taking steps to implement more stringent quality controls, investigate customer complaints more aggressively, keep open lines of communication with safety agencies and respond more quickly to safety issues we identify."

Most consumers who filed complaints reported that the Tacoma suddenly accelerated when it was stopped or when they were driving at low speed while parking or approaching a stop sign or traffic light. A number of people said they had no floor mat or that it was tied down.

In one report to NHTSA, the consumer said his truck took off while he was stopped at a gate waiting for it to open.

"The gate was totaled from my truck," the consumer wrote. "When I hit the brake, it went faster ... I was not even driving and it took off on its own!"

Another consumer said that while slowing for a traffic light, the truck surged. "I was broadsided by a delivery truck and thrown across the intersection, shearing off the pole supporting same traffic light," the consumer wrote. "My vehicle was totaled."

Another person said his Tacoma accelerated after he tapped the brakes while driving out of Nashville in the rain.

The truck hydroplaned, drove into an embankment, rolled several times, went airborne and landed on its roof, and rolled a few more times. The driver was hospitalized.

In response to a query from the panel, Toyota said this month it would reopen its earlier review of Tacoma complaints.

"We will re-examine those complaints as part of the top-to-bottom review of quality and safety that we have committed to undertaking," Lyons said.

In October, Toyota recalled the 2005-10 Tacoma, among other models, for potential floor-mat entrapment of the accelerator. The model was not in the January recall for sticky pedals because it does not use a pedal system made by CTS Corp.

Most complaints blamed the electronic throttle control system, according to NHTSA records.

"I believe that this issue is more complex than is being stated," one complainant said last August. "Floor mat is not the problem. It is so tightly secured to the floor by the factory connectors that it is, and has always been, a major pain to remove for cleaning."

Toyota introduced a new electronic throttle control system in its 2005 Tacoma. The company said its 2008 review found no "vehicle-based cause" for the complaints. Toyota consistently has maintained that unintended acceleration is not associated with electronic interference.

NHTSA closed its 2008 investigation after finding that "the information suggesting a possible defect related to motor vehicle safety is quite limited."

In a letter this month to NHTSA, Rep. Gordon expressed disappointment with the 2008 agency investigation.

NHTSA "underestimated the severity of the problem" by conducting "a cursory investigation," he wrote.

Gordon asked the agency to reopen its Tacoma investigation. NHTSA has not responded.

Read more: http://www.autonews.com/article/20100222/OEM06/302229927/1143#ixzz0gGoYeOem

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