US demands Toyota documents tied to massive recalls; automaker to idle 3 plants

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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WASHINGTON - The U.S. government ordered Toyota to turn over documents related to its massive recalls Tuesday, pressing to see how long the automaker knew of safety defects before taking action.

The U.S. Transportation Department is demanding that Toyota reveal when and how it learned of problems with sticking accelerators and with floor mats trapping gas pedals. The company must respond within 30 to 60 days or face fines.

Those defects and problems with brakes on new Prius hybrids have now led to the recall of 8.5 million vehicles worldwide, including more than two million in the United States and some 270,000 in Canada.

The intensifying investigation and upcoming production halts at some U.S. assembly plants announced Tuesday are fresh signs of the ripple effect the recalls are having on the world's No. 1 automaker - even as car-owners are streaming to dealers for fixes.

Toyota also faces separate probes by the Obama administration and Congress as it struggles to maintain its loyal customer base and its reputation for safety and quality.

Toyota said it was halting production temporarily in San Antonio, Texas, and Georgetown, Ky., to address concerns that too many unsold vehicles may be building up at dealerships because of the large recalls.

Company spokesman Mike Goss said the Texas plant, which builds the Tundra pickup truck, would take production breaks for the weeks of March 15 and April 12. The Kentucky plant, which makes the Camry, Avalon and Venza vehicles, plans to take a non-production day on Feb. 26 and may not build vehicles on three more days in March and April.

Toyota employs 1,850 workers at the San Antonio plant and about 6,600 at the Georgetown facility. None will be laid off during the production interruptions.

In addition, the company's plant in Huntsville, Ala., will idle some production during the same time as the San Antonio facility, according to company spokeswoman Stephanie Deemer. The Alabama factory makes V-8 engines for the Tundra pickup trucks that are assembled in Texas. About 300 workers will be affected but will still be paid and may perform other tasks, Deemer said.

Toyota halted most production at its plants in Woodstock and Cambridge, Ont., for a week in early February when it stopped sales of affected vehicles while it searched for a fix. There have been no indications of any additional production halts in Canada.

The Japanese automaker produces the Corolla and Matrix at its plant in Cambridge and the RAV4 at its plant in Woodstock.

Complaints of deaths connected to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles have surged in recent weeks, with the alleged death toll reaching 34 since 2000, according to new consumer data gathered by the U.S. government.

Transport Canada spokesman James Kusie said Tuesday the federal department has received 19 complaints related to the sticky pedal problem since Toyota Canada recalled 270,000 vehicles in late January. Of those, two involved fatalities, but Transport Canada has not yet confirmed whether the pedal was a factor in either crash.

Since 2005, Transport Canada says it has received 85 consumer complaints about the accelerator systems and driveability of a variety of Toyota models. None of these were deemed to be specifically related to the sticky pedal issue

The demands from the U.S. government for information, similar to a subpoena, follow criticism from consumer groups that the U.S. Transportation Department has been too soft on automakers and has failed to fine the companies or seek detailed information through legal powers.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has defended his department's handling of the Toyota investigation, calling the Japanese automaker "a little safety deaf" about the problems. LaHood said the government urged Toyota to issue recalls and sent federal safety officials to Japan to warn company officials of the seriousness of the problems.

LaHood has said the government is considering civil penalties for Toyota over its handling of the recalls. The maximum fine is more than $16 million. 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.

Under U.S. federal law, automakers must notify the department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within five days of determining that a safety defect exists and promptly conduct a recall.

The probe extends beyond Toyota's U.S. operations, a request that safety experts said was unprecedented for a federal agency tasked with regulating vehicles domestically. The agency is seeking information on Toyota vehicles that were sold overseas and also subject to U.S. recalls for problems with sticking gas pedals. Toyota told NHTSA in January that the problem appeared in Europe beginning in December 2008.

NHTSA also seeks overseas vehicle information in its investigation of potential electronic problems.

Government investigators are looking into whether Toyota discovered the problems before, during or after production of the affected vehicles, whether their recalls covered all affected vehicles and whether the company learned of the problems through consumer complaints or internal tests.

Toyota said in a statement that it "takes its responsibility to advance vehicle safety seriously and to alert government officials of any safety issue in a timely manner."

"We are reviewing NHTSA's request and will co-operate to provide all the information they have requested," it said.

NHTSA also wants to know how seriously Toyota considered the possibility that electronics of the gas pedal system might play a role. The company has said tests show that electronics were not to blame.

But U.S. safety officials also want to know how Toyota dealt with complaints that might not be related to floor mats or sticking pedals.

Kathleen DeMeter, the director of NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation Enforcement, wrote that the agency was "seeking to determine whether Toyota viewed the underlying defects too narrowly ... without fully considering the broader issue of unintended acceleration and any associated safety-related defects that warrant recalls."

Toyota has been fixing vehicles under recall. Toyota Vice-President Bob Carter told reporters at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention in Orlando, Fla., on Monday that the company had repaired about 500,000 of the 2.3 million U.S. vehicles recalled over a potentially sticky gas pedal.

Organizations: Toyota Canada, U.S. Transportation Department, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Transport Canada General Motors Office of Defects Investigation Enforcement National Automobile Dealers Association

Geographic location: United States, San Antonio, Texas, Canada WASHINGTON Woodstock Cambridge Georgetown, Ky. Kentucky Georgetown Huntsville, Ala. Japan Europe Orlando, Fla.

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