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."