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Toyota safety alerts reached Europe before US

INVESTIGATION IS ONGOING Ray LaHood, the US transportation secretary, cited Toyota’s European actions as he levied a $16.4 million fine. INVESTIGATION IS ONGOING
Ray LaHood, the US transportation secretary, cited Toyota’s European actions as he levied a $16.4 million fine.
By Ken Thomas and Larry Margasak
Associated Press / April 7, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Toyota issued repair procedures to its distributors in 31 European countries for sticking accelerator pedals months before it warned US regulators about the problem — and on the same day it told the US government it would conduct a recall over loose floor mats, according to Toyota documents obtained yesterday by the Associated Press.

This week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood cited the Sept. 29 European warnings in his decision to fine the Japanese automaker $16.4 million, a record amount, for failing to alert US officials about safety problems quickly. LaHood said Toyota made a “huge mistake’’ by not disclosing problems with gas pedals on some of its most popular models sooner.

Detailed chronologies provided by Toyota to the government and obtained by the AP show rising concern at the end of 2009 about sticking gas pedals and complaints from US Toyota owners. Toyota’s European division issued technical information to distributors “identifying a production improvement and repair procedure to address complaints by customers in those countries of sticking accelerator pedals, sudden rpm increase and/or sudden vehicle acceleration.’’

On the same day, Toyota told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of its decision to recall several Toyota and Lexus models “to address the risk of accelerator pedal entrapment by all-weather floor mats,’’ according to a timeline of the company’s floor mat recall.

The two timelines, entitled “preliminary chronology of principal events,’’ were provided to the US government March 24.

Toyota has said the problems involved separate issues; in the case of the sticking gas pedals, the problem was related to the buildup of condensation on sliding surfaces that help drivers push down or release the gas pedal, the company said.

The documents were among 70,000 pages turned over to government investigators. They detail internal communications and testing of the sticking pedals before Toyota presented its findings to the NHTSA four months later, on Jan. 19. Two days later, Toyota announced it would recall 2.3 million vehicles to address the sticking pedals.

On Oct. 7, a staff member of Toyota’s product planning and management division in Japan sent a Toyota colleague in North America a copy of engineering change instructions describing the same design changes for the accelerator pedal of a Toyota RAV4 as were implemented in Europe.

Two weeks later, the timeline says, a member of the team in North America got a call from a colleague in Japan “instructing him not to implement the [engineering change instructions] noted above.’’

Toyota notified NHTSA in November of three cases of sticking pedals in the United States. In November and December, Toyota engineers examined pedals from the Corollas and “concluded that the phenomenon experienced in the United States was essentially the same as the phenomenon experienced in Europe.’’

In mid-January, Toyota held internal meetings “to discuss status of production changes and to prepare for meetings with NHTSA’’ on Jan. 19.

Yesterday, LaHood said he would not be surprised if a review of documents uncovered additional safety lapses by the automaker. “This is the first thing that we have found. It may not be the last thing,’’ he said.

Automakers must notify the safety administration within five days of determining that a safety defect exists and promptly conduct a recall.

Toyota 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 and braking issues.