- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The number of reported deaths related to unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles has jumped by more than 60 percent since the world’s biggest automaker issued its sticky-gas-pedal recall notices in late January, and consumer advocates say the worst is yet to come.

A Monday tally of consumer complaints compiled on a database by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that in just the past three weeks the agency has received nine complaints of sudden acceleration in Toyotas since 2005, which resulted in 13 fatalities and 10 injuries.

The new complaints began Jan. 27, the day after Toyota Motor Corp. announced that it would stop selling eight popular vehicles in the United States and shut down all its U.S. manufacturing plants for one week. Those reports bring the total number of deaths unofficially blamed on acceleration problems in Toyotas to 34, according to the NHTSA database on its Web site.

During the entire 10-year period, from 2000 through 2009, NHTSA received 17 complaints involving 21 deaths. Six of those deaths were reported during the last few weeks of 2009 after Toyota recalled millions of vehicles to fix a gas-pedal-entrapment problem.

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“As we get further down the road, the death toll will certainly increase,” said Clarence M. Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit consumer group founded by Ralph Nader and Consumers Union in 1970.

“Thirty-four is the tip of the iceberg. It is just a matter of time before the total number of deaths goes over 100,” said Mr. Ditlow, who noted that fatality reports soared after Ford Motor Co. recalled its Explorer sport utility vehicle equipped with Firestone tires about a decade ago.

Meanwhile, complaints about a faulty braking system in the 2010 model of Toyota’s gasoline-electric hybrid Prius have skyrocketed by more than 800 percent since the NHTSA opened a formal investigation Feb. 3. That probe is “look[ing] into allegations of momentary loss of braking capability” when the Prius moves over an uneven road surface, the NHTSA said.

When the NHTSA began its investigation, 124 Prius complaints had been reported. During the nine-day period ending Thursday, 996 additional complaints were received, NHTSA said Monday. The Prius braking problem has been blamed for causing 34 accidents, six injuries and no deaths, according to consumer complaints received by NHTSA.

“It is normal for NHTSA to receive an increase in consumer complaints after a recall is announced and the public learns of a safety defect,” said Olivia Alair, a spokeswoman at the Department of Transportation. “The agency is quickly gathering more data on all of these additional complaints to help guide our examination of sudden acceleration, the Prius braking system, as well as other safety issues.”

Three congressional committees have scheduled hearings to investigate safety problems in Toyota vehicles, including the company’s Lexus luxury brand.

Since last fall, Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles worldwide, including nearly 5 million vehicles in the United States, to prevent the accelerator pedal from becoming trapped in the fully open position by a floor mat. Earlier this month, Toyota issued a global recall for 437,000 Prius hybrids, the No. 1-selling car last year in Japan, over unrelated problems with the hybrid vehicle’s anti-lock brakes.

In a Jan. 28 letter to Yoshimi Inaba, president of Toyota Motor North America, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, reported that NHTSA data revealed that sudden unintended acceleration deaths in Toyota vehicles totaled “nearly twice the number of deaths associated with similar events in cars manufactured by all other automakers combined.”

Mr. Waxman’s committee will hold a hearing Feb. 25 to investigate complaints about Toyota’s problems with sudden unintended acceleration and other safety issues.

Mr. Inaba, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and NHTSA Administrator David Strickland are scheduled to testify.

A day earlier, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hold a hearing titled “Toyota Gas Pedals: Is the Public at Risk?”

Both House committees will be looking into whether faulty electronics played a role in the gas-pedal problems. Two Japanese newspapers reported Sunday that Toyota submitted a letter to the oversight committee asserting that it “is convinced there is no problem” with the electronics in its vehicles.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda, the grandson of the firm’s founder, will soon be coming to the United States to meet with Toyota workers and dealers. Mr. Toyoda has acknowledged that his company “failed to connect the dots” between sticky gas pedals, which surfaced in Europe in late 2008, and the gas-pedal problems that resulted in the recent recalls of millions of Toyota and Lexus vehicles in the United States.

Toyota said Monday that Mr. Toyoda has not decided whether to meet with U.S. lawmakers. Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican and ranking member on the House oversight committee, has called upon Mr. Toyoda to testify before his panel.

On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has scheduled a hearing on Toyota’s problems for March 2.

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