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More Toyota lapses possible

| Wednesday, April 7, 2010

CHICAGO -- Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Tuesday he wouldn't be surprised if a review of documents from Toyota Motor Corp. uncovered additional safety lapses at the Japanese automaker.

LaHood said that Toyota was "safety deaf" and that the Japanese automaker made a "huge mistake" by not disclosing safety problems with gas pedals on some of its most popular models sooner. A day earlier, the DOT charged that Toyota failed to alert regulators to its safety problems fast enough and announced it would face a record $16.4 million fine.

Documents obtained from the automaker show that Toyota knew of the problem with the sticking gas pedals in late September but did not issue a recall until late January, LaHood said Monday. The sticking pedals involved 2.3 million vehicles.

Yesterday, LaHood said, "This is the first thing that we have found. It may not be the last thing," adding that "it would not surprise me if we discovered other information."

Under federal law, automakers must notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within five days of determining that a safety defect exists and promptly conduct a recall.

Toyota, in a statement yesterday, said it "has and will continue to practice its philosophy of satisfying consumers with high quality vehicles that are safe and reliable, and responding to consumer feedback with honesty and integrity."

Toyota has recalled more than 6 million vehicles in the United States and more than 8 million worldwide because of acceleration problems in multiple models and braking issues in the Prius hybrid.

The government said documents provided by Toyota showed the automaker had known about the sticky pedal defect since at least Sept. 29, when it issued repair procedures to distributors in 31 European countries and Canada to address complaints of sticking pedals, sudden increases in engine RPM and sudden vehicle acceleration.

The Transportation Department said the documents show that Toyota knew that owners in the United States had experienced the same problems.

The Japanese automaker was still weighing its options yesterday about whether to accept or contest the fine. The proposed fine is the most the government could levy, but further penalties are possible under continuing federal investigations. LaHood declined to speculate on whether Toyota will face additional fines.

Toyota's fine of $16.375 million is the largest ever levied on an automaker and dwarfs the previous record: In 2004, General Motors paid a $1 million fine for responding too slowly on a recall of nearly 600,000 vehicles over windshield wiper failure.

The fine is just one of several problems it continues to face related to its recalls. Toyota has been named in 138 potential class-action lawsuits over falling vehicle values and nearly 100 personal injury and wrongful death cases in federal courts nationwide.

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