Toyota’s fast recall fix raises questions

For immediate release: Feb 21, 2010

What appears to be Toyota’s rapid development of a fix for sticky throttle pedals is raising suspicion that it has known about the problem much longer than it says.

Two House panels are ready to probe the gas-pedal issue. The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has set a hearing for Feb. 10 and the Energy and Commerce Committee will hold one Feb. 25 to determine when Toyota knew there was a serious problem.

TIMELINE: How, when government, Toyota handled complaints
Q&A: Toyota reveals details on pedal solution
REPAIR: Toyota ships pedal part to dealers
FROM TOYOTA: Press release, video for owners

A meeting with Toyota officials “left important questions unanswered, including when Toyota learned about these serious safety defects and what actions the company took to investigate and resolve the hazards,” the Energy and Commerce Committee said in a letter to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) chief David Strickland late last week.

“Something’s awry,” says Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the panel’s subcommittee that will hold the hearing. “It’s not just a recent revelation.”

Regulations require automakers to report a safety defect to NHTSA within five business days. Toyota told NHTSA on Jan. 21 that a defect was causing its gas pedals to stick. On Jan. 28, Toyota said it had a solution. The company “fulfilled all of our responsibilities in a timely manner,” says spokeswoman Martha Voss. “Identifying trends can be challenging.”

Toyota told NHTSA it fixed sticking pedals in European cars in August, but different models from those sold in North America, where complaints didn’t surface until October.

NHTSA also is investigating whether CTS, the company that makes the possibly faulty pedals, gave “proper and timely notice” to any other automakers that might have bought flawed pedal assemblies. CTS says the problem is only with the Toyota-designed component, which isn’t sold to any other automaker.

If NHTSA determines Toyota waited too long to report its defective pedals, the company could face substantial civil penalties.

“Timing is key,” says Nicole Nason, NHTSA chief from 2006 to 2008. “If they need to set an example with Toyota, they should.”

Carl Tobias, a liability law professor at the University of Richmond, says, “There is no clear standard or rule” for how many complaints make a problem that merits a recall.

Jeff Runge, NHTSA administrator from 2001 to 2005, says that “the speed at which manufacturers felt compelled to notify the agency” started to become an issue in the 2000s.

Runge says Toyota might simply have gotten a head start on a recall remedy by beginning work initially on ways to quell complaints about pedals that felt rough or were sluggish.

Still, he says, “You can argue about when it should have risen to the level of a defect.”