- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Transportation Department demanded documents related to Toyota’s massive recalls in the United States on Tuesday to find out whether the automaker acted swiftly enough.

Toyota, meanwhile, said it will idle production temporarily at Texas and Kentucky plants over concerns the recalls could lead to big stockpiles of unsold vehicles.

The legal documents demand that Toyota tell the government when and how the company learned of the safety defects in millions of vehicles regarding the entrapment of gas pedals by floor mats and sticky accelerators. The documents were delivered to Toyota on Tuesday and the company must respond within 30 to 60 days or face fines.

The intensifying government investigation of Toyota and production halts at its assembly plants represented another sign of the ripple effect the recall of 8.5 million vehicles has had on the world’s No. 1 automaker. Toyota 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 and Georgetown, Ky., to address concerns that too many unsold vehicles may be languishing 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 6,850 at the Georgetown facility.

In late January, Toyota halted production of recalled brands throughout the U.S. for about a week.

The information requests from the government, similar to a subpoena, follow criticism from consumer groups that the Transportation Department was too soft on automakers and failed to fine the companies or seek detailed information from them through subpoena 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 safety problems. Mr. 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.

Under federal law, automakers must notify the Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within five days of determining that a safety defect exists and then promptly conduct a recall.

Government investigators are looking into whether Toyota discovered the problems during preproduction or post-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.

Federal officials are focusing on the two major issues behind the recalls - gas pedals that can become lodged on floor mats and pedal systems that are “sticky,” making it harder for drivers to press on the pedal or ease up on the gas.

The information requests seek detailed timelines of when Toyota first became aware of the problems, how it handled complaints, how much it has paid out in warranty claims over pedal problems, internal communications about pedals, and the identity of company officials involved in making decisions about the issue.

NHTSA also wants to know how seriously Toyota considered the possibility that electronics of the gas pedal system may be involved. The company has said tests show that the electronics were not to blame. But federal safety officials 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.”

Congress is also investigating. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is holding a hearing on the Toyota recalls on Feb. 24 and the House Energy and Commerce Committee has scheduled a Feb. 25 hearing. Toyota Motor North America Chief Executive Officer Yoshi Inaba, Mr. LaHood and NHTSA Administrator David Strickland are expected to testify at both meetings.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has scheduled a March 2 hearing but has not announced its witness list.

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