New Toyota Investigations Signal More Aggressive Approach from NHTSA

Toyota is facing tough questions from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). According to various media reports, the agency has opened new investigations into Toyota’s recent recalls, and is demanding that the automaker turn over an extensive list of documents.

Since last fall, Toyota has recalled millions of cars for problems involving sudden acceleration and faulty brakes. It all started in September, when Toyota announced it was recalling and replacing floor mats on approximately 4.2 million vehicles which were allegedly causing accelerator pedals in the vehicles to become stuck in the depressed position, leading to uncontrollable and rapid acceleration of the vehicle. On January 21, Toyota recalled 2.3 million vehicles due to accelerator pedals on those vehicles becoming stuck in a depressed position, causing unexpected and unsafe acceleration.

As we’ve reported previously, the NHTSA has now received more than 2,000 complaints of sudden, unintended acceleration with Toyota and Lexus vehicles that involve 34 deaths and hundreds of accidents since 2000.

According to a report in The Detroit News, the aim of two new NHTSA probes will be to determine if Toyota acted promptly when it issued the recalls over sudden acceleration. One investigation will focus on whether or not Toyota followed a law that requires automakers to notify NHTSA within five days of determining a safety defect. The second will determine if Toyota has recalled all vehicles with the potential for a sticky accelerator pedal or pedal entrapment in floor mats. The NHTSA’s aggressive stance signals a shift at the agency, which usually ends vehicle defect investigations once an automaker issues a recall.

The Washington Post is reporting that the document requests were made in three letters totaling 53 page. In the letters, the NHTSA asked Toyota to provide a wide range of documents, including consumer complaints, reports from auto dealers, sales figures, design changes and third-party arbitration proceedings. It also asked for information about earlier Toyota recalls in Europe.

According to The Washington Post, if Toyota is found to have violated regulations, it could face a civil fine of up to $16.4 million. The last major fine of an automaker involved General Motors paying a $1 million penalty in a windshield wiper recall in 2004, the Post said.

The NHTSA’s aggressive approach to the Toyota debacle could be the result of criticism directed at the agency for not pushing the automaker harder in the past. As The Detroit News pointed out, the NHTSA has lunched six separate investigations into Toyota’s sudden acceleration complaints in recent years, but they resulted only in the recall of 55,000 floor mats.

Next week, Toyota and NHTSA officials will testify at a congressional hearing into the Toyota recalls. Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst at, told The Washington Post that the agency’s new aggressiveness is part of “a lot of posturing” both it and Toyota are undertaking in advance of the hearing to “put themselves in the best light possible.”

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