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Toyota faces new probe

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Toyota faces new probe

Feds investigate possible delay in 2005 recall of 977,000 pickups, SUVs over steering issue

David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington -- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened a new investigation Monday into whether Toyota Motor Corp. delayed a September 2005 recall of 977,000 pickups and sport utility vehicles for potential steering problems.

Toyota had recalled "substantially similar" models in Japan a year earlier. At that time, the automaker said no complaints had come from the U.S. market and Japanese driving conditions were more likely to require maneuvers that could cause a steering rod to snap.

On Friday, however, NHTSA was notified that 41 complaints had been filed with Toyota by U.S. consumers prior to the October 2004 recall in Japan of the Hilux pickup and the Hilux Surf SUV.

NHTSA was alerted by a plaintiff's lawyer suing Toyota who discovered the complaints as part of his research. In a letter to Toyota on Monday, NHTSA sought extensive information about the 2005 recall of the Toyota 4Runner SUV, and Toyota trucks and Toyota T-100 pickup trucks. The agency is reviewing whether Toyota met its legal obligation to conduct a timely recall of vehicles and could issue a new fine of up to $16.4 million if it determines Toyota dragged its feet.

NHTSA's move Monday came as U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was in Japan to meet with Toyota officials about responding more aggressively to safety concerns.

NHTSA has already fined Toyota for delaying a U.S. recall of 2.3 million vehicles by at least four months after issuing an earlier recall in Europe.

"Our team is now working to obtain documents and information from Toyota to find out whether the manufacturer notified NHTSA within five business days of discovering a safety defect in U.S. vehicles," NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said Monday.

Toyota must respond to NHTSA's request by June 14. It said it would cooperate, but offered no other comment.

In October 2004, Toyota recalled 330,000 Hilux and Hilux Surf vehicles in Japan. Toyota said it conducted the campaign because "of the unique operating conditions in Japan," specifically frequent, full-lock turns for narrow parking spaces.

In July 2006, Japanese media reported that prosecutors investigated three executives for allegedly delaying the Hilux recall for eight years, until an accident injured five people.

At least three lawsuits have been filed against Toyota, including one by the family of Michael "Levi" Stewart. He died in 2007 in Fairfield, Idaho, when the steering relay rod on his 1991 Toyota pickup snapped. The recalled vehicle had never been repaired. Stewart died, and a passenger was severely injured.

LaHood said NHTSA is still considering whether to impose additional fines on Toyota related to its recall of millions of vehicle over sudden acceleration issues and it could take "months" for a decision.

He met with Toyota President Akio Toyoda for several hours, touring facilities and holding a joint 25-minute press conference. LaHood said the pair had a "candid, frank, serious" discussion.

"We said he really needed to change the way that he was listening to his folks in North America," LaHood said. "I think he understood for the first time that Toyota was facing some very, very serious credibility problems in the United States."

But Toyota must follow words with actions, he said. "We're going to see how it all works out.

From The Detroit News: http://www.detnews.com/article/20100511/AUTO01/5110322/1148/Toyota-faces-new-probe#ixzz0nchxGWBy

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