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E-mails show NHTSA investigating Toyota issues in '04

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E-mails show NHTSA investigating Toyota issues in '04

David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington -- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was already investigating sudden unintended acceleration claims in 2004, when insurer State Farm notified the government of a spike in complaints.

The Detroit News obtained on Saturday a series of e-mails between State Farm and NHTSA officials in 2004 that show the government had already been probing the issue

The e-mails show NHTSA was appreciative of the "timely" submissions by the insurer. The records also show that NHTSA continued to working with State Farm in 2009 as it further probed the issue of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

But the new e-mails don't shed any new light on why NHTSA ended its investigation in July 2004 without requiring any action by Toyota Motor Corp. NHTSA dropped its investigation because it didn't find a safety defect or any evidence of an unreasonable safety risk, the government said.

Transportation Department spokeswoman Olivia Alair said Saturday that NHTSA was already aware of the issue -- as early as December 2003 -- when State Farm contacted the agency in early 2004.

NHTSA "had already begun looking into complaints of unintended acceleration in certain Toyota vehicles in 2003 before State Farm supplied any information on that topic to the auto safety agency," Alair said. "While insurance data is a useful source of supplemental information in identifying auto defect trends, the primary sources are consumer complaints, early warning reporting from manufacturers, technical service bulletins provided by manufacturers to car dealers and foreign recalls on vehicles that are similar to vehicles sold in the U.S."

The records detailing contacts between the insurer and NHTSA were turned over by State Farm to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee late Friday, which will hold a Wednesday hearing on Toyota's worldwide recall of 8.5 million vehicles over pedal entrapment and sticky pedal concerns.

The hearing --which will include Toyota president Akio Toyoda --comes after NHTSA has received more than 2,000 complaints of sudden acceleration and allegations of 34 deaths since 2000 on Toyota vehicles.

"There are signficant questions surrounding when defects were first reported to regulators by Toyota and whether regulators did their due diligence once they were brought into the process.," said Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa , R-Calif., the ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform. "We are going to examine and scrutinize everyone's role, industry and government's alike, to ensure that moving forward the safety of America's drivers is not compromised in any way."

NHTSA records show the safety agency began investigating the issue in late 2003.

• On Dec. 9, 2003, NHTSA's defect screening group recommended a formal investigation of unintended acceleration in the 2002-03 Toyota Camry after getting 39 complaints, alleging 26 crashes.

A summary of the meeting obtained by The News said NHTSA suspected the unintended acceleration was caused by "possibly the engine's electronic control module or the drive-by-wire throttle system" that became standard on the 2002 model.

• On Feb. 17, 2004, NHTSA began a separate formal review of a defect petition concerning unintended acceleration in the 2002-03 Lexus ES 300.

• Just 10 days later, State Farm research administrator Sam Boyden sent an e-mail to NHTSA on Feb. 27, saying the nation's largest insurer had five claims of unwanted acceleration in the 2002 Lexus ES 300 during the previous 12 months.

One of the crashes was a 2002 Lexus ES 300 in the garage of a Life Time Fitness in August 2003. "Gas pedal stuck causing a hit of multiple cars," said the State Farm report obtained by The Detroit News on Saturday

Another accident took place in a Lexus with just 2,300 miles on it as a couple was driving from Mississippi and stopped for gas in Louisiana. "He kept depressing the brakes, but the described vehicle would not stop," the State Farm report said. "It felt like his accelerator got stuck."

Another claim filed in November 2002 said it was the third time the Lexus had taken off "without warning on its own."

• On March, 1, 2004, Jonathan White, chief of defects assessment for NHTSA, wrote back to Boyden, seeking additional claims data.

"We are looking into similar reports and would like to acquire what similar information you have on the model year 2002-2004 Camry and Camry Solara, as well as the 2003-2004 Lexus ES 300," White wrote. "Your submission of the information was very timely; we had just presented the information on the Camry vehicles."

• On March 2, 2004, Boyden wrote back attaching 34 more claims, including 18 on the 2002 Camry and 11 on the 2003 Camry.

• Two days later on March 4, 2004, NHTSA opened a formal investigation of alleged unintended acceleration in the 2002-03 Toyota Camry/Solara and Lexus ES 300.

• But NHTSA closed the probe a few months later on July 22, 2004, without identifying a safety defect trend or vehicle-based cause.

NHTSA had six separate investigations into sudden acceleration of Toyota vehicles in the last decade -- and required Toyota to do little.

In September 2007, Toyota agreed to recall of 55,000 floor mats on the 2007-08 Lexus ES 350 and 2007-08 Camry -- but didn't make any mechanical fix.

But NHTSA continued to look at the issue.

NHTSA requested on April 29 a listing of State Farm claims alleging unintended acceleration for all vehicle models for the 2006-09 model years. When NHTSA got the list on June 24, the agency incorporated the data as part of its review.

After an August deadly accident in Santee, Calif., that left an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and three others dead when the pedal of a loaner Lexus vehicle got stuck in the floormat, Toyota soon agreed to a comprehensive fix.

Toyota has recalled 5.4 million vehicles in the United States to address pedal entrapment concerns, and is replacing floor mats, shrinking and replacing accelerator pedals and in some cases adding foam underneath the carpet below the pedal. Toyota has also agreed to add brake override systems to all vehicles that will allow motorists to stop vehicles even if the accelerator is stuck.

Toyota has also recalled 2.3 million vehicles in the U.S. over sticky pedal issues.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said that federal officials had to push Toyota "every step of the way" to act faster on the safety issues. NHTSA event sent its acting administrator, Ron Medford, to Japan in December to meet with senior Toyota officials and urge the company to move faster on safety issues.

From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20100220/AUTO01/2200386/1148/AUTO01/E-mails-show-NHTSA-investigating-Toyota-issues-in--04#ixzz0gH0tTMOQ

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