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Missed Signs in Toyota Recalls

Toyota car grille
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Toyota car grille

WASHINGTON (AP) -- When Peter Boddeart's Lexus lurched forward and rear-ended another vehicle in Fauquier County, Va., earning him a police citation, he wrote to federal regulators imploring them to look into his case "before someone ends up seriously injured or killed."

That was in 2003.

The years since have seen hundreds of drivers' complaints about unwanted acceleration of their Toyotas, six inconclusive federal investigations, multiple reports of deaths and repeated denials from the automaker that it had a major problem on its hands.

That's just the sort of bureaucratic inertia Barack Obama pointedly criticized as a presidential candidate. Yet his administration was without a federal highway safety chief for most of its first year and, like the Bush administration before it, missed signals in the Toyota case.

After several investigations, it was only last week that Toyota owners learned federal regulators, concerned that the company was not taking apparently dangerous defects seriously enough, traveled to Japan in December to light a fire under corporate executives. Meanwhile, millions of Toyotas continued to be driven by drivers unaware of the potential scope of the problem, and the cars continued to be sold.

Combined with a recall involving the toxic metal cadmium that arose from press scrutiny rather than federal oversight, the Toyota episode has raised questions about whether the government under Democrats will be any more agile in enforcement of consumer protections than the Bush administration was.

"When you've got a government regulatory agency, it has to be a government cop on the corporate beat," said Joan Claybrook, who was chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during the Carter administration. "And it's got to act like a cop."

Claybrook said that while most of the Toyota investigations took place during the Bush administration, the absence of a permanent administrator during Obama's first year prevented a new team from conducting a full review of dozens of pending defect investigations and a fresh look at the Toyota cases.

Toyota's string of recalls burst into the open in late September, leaving millions of car owners unsure if their vehicles were safe to drive and tarnishing the reputation of a company once synonymous with safe, reliable cars. The road to the recall of millions of Camrys, Corollas and other popular Toyota models began years ago, touched off by warnings from Boddeart, who died in April, and others who worried their cars might bolt forward and cause a crash.

Back in 2003, Boddeart told regulators that his accident marked the third time his 1999 Lexus LS400 accelerated unexpectedly and asked them to investigate. Five months later, the 83-year-old's petition to the agency was panned "in view of the need to allocate and prioritize NHTSA's limited resources," a common refrain in rejection letters.

Several investigations followed.

In 2004, Carol Mathews, a nurse from Rockville, Md., crashed into a tree when her Lexus suddenly accelerated. She asked the agency to investigate. The government reviewed problems with electronic throttles in about 1 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles and found more than 100 complaints.

Seeking to limit the scope of the review, Toyota urged the government to consider a "vehicle surge to be something less than a wide-open throttle." No defect was found after 4 1/2 months of investigating and the case was closed.

In July 2005, Jordan Ziprin, a retired attorney in Phoenix, asked the government to dig into the problem after his 2002 Camry XLE spun out of control and crashed into an electric utility box. "Had there been any vehicles or pedestrians in the street, deaths would probably have followed," he wrote.

Reviewing Toyota models built from 2002 to 2005, the agency found that 20 percent of 432 complaints reviewed involved "sudden or unintended acceleration." But regulators said the complaint rate was "unremarkable." The government closed the case, citing "insufficient evidence."

A separate investigation launched in March 2007 reviewed allegations that floor mats were interfering with accelerator pedals. Toyota said a month later that there was "no possibility of the pedal interference with the all-weather floor mat if it's placed properly and secured."

By that August, government investigators had tied the problem to 12 deaths and a survey of 600 Lexus owners found about 10 percent reported sudden or unexpected acceleration. In September, Toyota recalled 55,000 Camry and ES350 vehicles to replace the floor mats. But that was hardly the end of the problems.

In January 2008, William Kronholm of Helena, Mont., complained about his 2006 Tacoma truck accelerating while he hit the brakes. During the investigation, Toyota told NHTSA it believed complaints by Kronholm, a retired Associated Press editor, and others were attributed to "extensive media coverage" and many of the problems cited by consumers -- including lurching when the vehicle came to a stop and engine idle speed changes when the vehicle was stopped -- were "minor drivability concerns." Kronholm's case was closed in August 2008 without a defect finding.

Last August, a high-speed crash near San Diego killed a California highway patrol officer, his wife, daughter and brother-in-law, bringing renewed attention to the problems, now the regulatory responsibility of the Obama administration.

The highway patrol officer's loaner Lexus ES350 reached speeds of more than 120 mph, struck an SUV, launched off an embankment, rolled several times and burst into flames. The family frantically called 911 from the Lexus, telling the dispatcher the pedal was stuck and they couldn't stop.

In October, Toyota issued its largest-ever U.S. recall, involving about 4 million vehicles. The fix, which is still under way, includes reconfiguring the gas pedal and installing brake override software on some vehicles.

In November, Toyota said federal regulators had concluded "no defect exists" in the case, drawing a rare rebuke from the government. NHTSA said the company issued inaccurate information. In December, federal officials traveled to Japan to urge Toyota to take the safety concerns seriously and report defects promptly. Toyota said it would comply.

On Jan. 12, a top Toyota executive said the company was addressing the problems. "We have learned from these mistakes and we are confident that we're doing the right thing for our customers," Toyota Motor Sales USA president Yoshi Inaba said in a Detroit speech.

Nine days later, Toyota recalled 2.3 million vehicles over concerns that the gas pedal could get stuck or fail to return to the idle position. Dealers are now engaged in an all-out blitz to fix the vehicles, inserting a small plate into the pedal assembly to deal with friction that could cause the problem.

The recalls have done little to soothe critics who have long thought the highway safety agency was too trusting of car companies and slow to push for higher standards. In Toyota's case, two of the company's top safety officials in Washington are former NHTSA employees.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who exposed auto industry malfeasance in his 1960s best-seller, "Unsafe at Any Speed," said the problems stem from a "regulatory enforcement agency that turned itself, due to corporate pressure and White House neglect, into a consulting firm."

NHTSA was without a permanent administrator for most of the past year. Obama's first choice, Chuck Hurley, chief executive officer of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, withdrew from consideration after environmentalists criticized him for being too soft on fuel efficiency standards. It was not until December that Obama put forward David Strickland, a former counsel to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, who was confirmed.

Now fully engaged, the Transportation Department has stepped up its investigation and warned that Toyota could face civil penalties of up to $16 million for failing to issue timely recalls. But the government has sent a mixed message. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood advised owners of recalled Toyota to stop driving their vehicles last week, then quickly backtracked and said he misspoke.

Congress is investigating and lawmakers are planning at least two hearings on the Toyota recalls this month. Now some Republicans, whose party was accused of failing to protect consumers during the Bush administration, question whether the agency held Toyota accountable.

"It begs the question if this is an organization that has been broken for a long time," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Committee. "They do a lot of good things but are certainly not doing everything they should well enough."

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