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NHTSA chief says Toyota was 'not truthful'

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NHTSA chief says Toyota was 'not truthful'

Agency head criticizes Japanese automaker for taking 'shortcuts'

David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington -- Toyota Motor Corp. was "not truthful" with federal regulators looking into sticky brake pedals, the nation's top safety official said Friday.

That lack of candor, said National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland, contributed to the largest auto safety fine ever proposed by the government.

In his first extended interview since taking over NHTSA Jan. 4, Strickland also criticized Toyota for failing to disclose a software upgrade on the 2010 Prius, and for taking "shortcuts" in its rapid growth.

"The very thing that made them as popular and trusted as they had been in the United States is what had failed them," Strickland told The Detroit News. "They are paying for those decisions -- and paying severely."

Toyota's woes expanded Friday, as it recalled 600,000 1998-2010 Sienna minivans for potential corrosion. And a U.S. House committee set a May 6 hearing on unintended acceleration by Toyota vehicles.

Two officials briefed on the matter said Toyota is expected to announce another recall of Lexus GX 460 on Monday, after Consumer Reports issued a rare "Don't Buy" rating, citing rollover concerns. Toyota, which stopped selling the vehicle Tuesday, is expected to announce a software update to address concerns about its electronic stability control system.

In his interview with The News, Strickland recounted a Jan. 19 meeting between NHTSA and a number of top U.S. Toyota executives, including its North American chief, Yoshimi Inaba, and sales chief Jim Lentz. The get-together was called to address NHTSA's concerns about sticky pedals.

"Frankly, at that meeting, they were not truthful" about what -- or when -- they knew about sticky pedals.

"They were not truthful," he repeated. "The only thing we ask of every manufacturer is to disclose timely and truthfully. And if you don't do that, I will make a recommendation and I will issue a fine."

On April 5, NHTSA imposed the maximum allowable fine, $16.4 million, over Toyota's failure to promptly recall 2.3 million vehicles for sticky pedals. Toyota has until Monday to decide if it will appeal the fine or pay it.

"This absolutely has to change in terms of how we deal with each other," Strickland said he told Inaba. "Bottom line is, I'm not going to put up with it."

At the Jan. 19 meeting, Strickland read a document that showed European Toyotas with pedal problems, and turned the page to read complaints about U.S. models.

"There are American cars here that have the same symptoms?" Strickland recalled asking. "That's when that meeting turned frankly much more aggressive."

'Millions' in U.S. put at risk

Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said Friday the automaker had no comment on Strickland's remarks. But the company's president, Akio Toyoda, acknowledged in February that Toyota "must do better -- much better -- in responding to safety issues."

NHTSA determined that Toyota delayed the sticky pedal recall by at least four months, exposing "millions of American drivers, passengers and pedestrians to the dangers of driving with a defective accelerator pedal."

On Sept. 29, Toyota issued repair procedures to their distributors in 31 other countries to address complaints of sticky pedals, but did nothing in the United States until two days after the January meeting.

That's when Toyota announced a recall of 2.3 million vehicles over the pedals. It stopped selling them here Jan. 26, because it didn't have an immediate remedy for the problem.

The pedal recall is part of the worldwide recall of 8.5 million vehicles over sudden acceleration concerns. NHTSA has received more than 3,000 complaints listing 51 deaths since 2000 in Toyotas.

Strickland criticized Toyota for boasting in a July internal memo that it had saved more than $100 million, by limiting a sudden acceleration recall in 2007 to just 55,000 floor mats.

"That $100 million savings has just now cost them billions," Strickland said, in lost sales, repair costs and potential lawsuits.

He defended NHTSA's handling of eight separate investigations into sudden acceleration issues since 2003 that led to little except the floor mat recall -- until a deadly accident in California in August.

"The staff made the right analysis: If we took care of the mats, the problem goes away," Strickland said. "The longer that we leave a risk out there haggling and fighting, we're exposing more people to more risk."

Strickland said he hopes Toyota "will take the right steps to be more responsive, to truly put safety first.

"I think over the years they lost sight of that and they took some shortcuts," he said.

Sean Kane, head of Safety Research & Strategies, said Strickland "has no choice but to hammer" Toyota -- given its behavior.

Strickland's comments follow the release of a Jan. 16 e-mail from Toyota's then-top U.S. spokesman, Irv Miller, who warned they needed to "come clean" on the defective pedals, adding "the time to hide on this one is over."

Strickland said NHTSA is investigating Toyota's February recall of 150,000 Prius hybrids over yet another braking issue because it devised a software patch for the anti-lock braking system without notifying regulators.

Toyota "made a decision once again that I don't think was the right one," Strickland said. He said NHTSA is trying to determine if Toyota is "being totally honest with us."

Venza recall investigated

NHTSA is also investigating whether Toyota improperly waited six weeks before recalling the Venza in the United States over floor mat issues, after issuing a similar earlier recall in Canada.

"If Toyota again made decisions for recalls or safety campaigns in other countries that they did not relay to us ... we will take action again," he said.

Strickland said the maximum fines under law of $16.4 million per recall are "too low." Boosting it to "way more than $100 million" would benefit the agency.

"A higher penalty would help the process of negotiating because if you have a more significant penalty ... there would be a much more aggressive evaluation of risk on the part of the manufacturers," he said.

He said there is no timetable for when NHTSA will decide whether to impose other recall-related Toyota fines. "There is no rush judgment here. We will take the time we need," he said.

Strickland said automakers have a "moral obligation" to their customers.

If vehicles aren't working as they should "and somebody loses their life and you could have done something about it, I don't know how anybody could sort of live with themselves in making that decision," he said.

From The Detroit News:


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