The Obama administration's top transportation official sharply criticized Toyota Motor Corp. on Tuesday for dragging its feet on safety concerns over its gas pedals, suggesting the automaker was "a little safety deaf" to mounting evidence of problems.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told The Associated Press that federal safety officials had to "wake them up" to the seriousness of the safety issues that eventually led Toyota to recall millions of popular brands like Camry and Corolla. That included a visit to Toyota's offices in Japan to convince them to take action.
"They should have taken it seriously from the very beginning when we first started discussing it with them," LaHood told AP. "Maybe they were a little safety deaf."
LaHood also said the government was considering civil penalties for Toyota over its handling of the recalls but declined to elaborate. The potential fines were first reported by the Detroit News. The largest auto industry fine came in 2004, when General Motors paid $1 million for responding too slowly on a recall of nearly 600,000 vehicles over windshield wiper failure.
The pointed comments came as Toyota showed just how painful the recall has been for the automaker that makes some of the best-selling vehicles in the United States. Sales fell 16 percent in January, hurt by Toyota's decision to halt sales while it sorted out a fix for problems with faulty gas pedals. Most other automakers reported sales gains for the month as the broader industry continued to show signs of improvement.
One of the more trusted brands of cars and trucks, Toyota is scrambling to repair both vehicles subject to its broad recalls and its image with consumers. Toyota executives apologized Monday to consumers for the problems, which has shaken the confidence of many Toyota drivers.
That problem prompted the company to recall 2.3 million vehicles two weeks ago in the United States. Toyota hopes a small steel insert the size of a postage stamp will solve problems with friction that are blamed for the potential glitch. Dealers said they expected to receive parts for the fix starting Wednesday.
LaHood said the Toyota recalls "may be the most serious safety issue that we have faced here at DOT" during his tenure. "This is a big deal, this is a big safety issue," LaHood said.
Asked for reaction to LaHood's comments to the AP, Toyota said in a statement Tuesday: "Nothing is more important to us than the safety and reliability of the vehicles our customers drive. Secretary LaHood said to us that the soonest possible action would be in the best interests of our customers, and we took his advice very seriously and instituted a recall."
"We are very grateful for his advice and we feel that we have been given a chance to regain our customers' trust," Toyota said.
LaHood said there appeared to be a disconnect between Toyota's North American offices and the company's headquarters in Japan. Toyota officials in North America took the problem seriously, but the Japan operation needed to be prodded, he said. LaHood said it took a trip by a top transportation official to Japan "to wake them up to the idea that this is a serious issue."
LaHood confirmed that the government was investigating potential electronic problems in the Toyota vehicles but declined to discuss the ongoing investigation. A Transportation official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the investigation, said the government was taking a fresh look at the electronic throttle control system and potential electromagnetic interference.
In October, Toyota recalled more than 4 million vehicles to replace floor mats that were suspected of causing accelerators to get stuck, leading to crashes. The recall has since grown to more than 5 million vehicles. Toyota has announced a separate fix for that problem, and parts for that repair are expected to arrive at dealerships beginning later this week.
Beginning in 2003, the government conducted several investigations into reports of unwanted acceleration involving Toyota vehicles but failed to find any evidence that the vehicles were defective. When the government probed reports of floor mats in Lexus vehicles jamming gas pedals, Toyota said there was "no possibility of pedal interference" with the floor mats if they were placed properly and secured.
But a government survey of Lexus owners found dozens of reports of sudden acceleration and evidence that in some crashes owners had pressed hard on the brakes but failed to stop the vehicles. The investigation led Toyota to recall an accessory all-weather floor mat for 55,000 Lexus vehicles in September 2007.
The problems grew last August when a California Highway Patrol officer and three family members were killed in a high-speed crash aboard a 2009 Lexus ES350. The Lexus hit speeds exceeding 120 mph, struck a sport utility vehicle, launched off an embankment, rolled several times and burst into flames as a family member called 911.
LaHood said the seriousness of the issue was clear after federal officials listened to 911 tapes from the crash. The caller told the dispatcher that the accelerator was stuck and the vehicle was speeding up shortly before the call goes dead.
"It's a serious safety issue," LaHood said. "We're not going to sit by and let these kinds of crashes occur without them taking very, very quick action."
Congress is expected to also take a close look at the government's role in the Toyota recalls. LaHood and Yoshi Inaba, chairman and CEO of Toyota Motor North America, were asked to testify next week in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform.
Separately, the investigative panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is planning a Feb. 25 hearing on the Toyota cases. That panel asked Toyota Tuesday for more information on the timing of its recall and its proof that electronics were not to blame for the pedal problems.