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Congressional hearings into Toyota recalls to begin

WASHINGTON (AP) - The president of Toyota's U.S. operations is
apologizing for the company's slow handling of sudden acceleration
problems in its vehicles, saying it took too long to confront the
issue.

Toyota's James Lentz, certain to face hostile questioning
Tuesday at a congressional hearing, says in prepared testimony that
Toyota had poor communications within the company, with government
regulators and with its customers.

Also being heard from Tuesday are drivers like Rhonda Smith, a
Sevierville, Tenn., woman whose Toyota-made Lexus suddenly zoomed to 100 miles per hour as she tried to get it to stop - shifting to
neutral, trying to throw the car into reverse and hitting the
emergency brake. Finally, her car slowed down before she crashed.

Smith's description of her nightmare ride in October 2006 will
precede testimony by safety experts - and set the tone for the
hearing. Toyota executives and the secretary of transportation also
will be at the witness table. Members of the House Energy and
Commerce Committee's investigative panel will be armed with
preliminary staff findings that Toyota and the government failed to
protect the public.

Toyota, which has recalled 8.5 million vehicles to fix
acceleration problems in several models and braking issues in the
2010 hybrid Prius, is bringing apologies to the hearing.

"In recent months, we have not lived up to the high standards
our customers and the public have come to expect from Toyota,"
said Lentz, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor
Sales U.S.A. Inc. in prepared testimony. "Put simply, it has taken
us too long to come to grips with a rare but serious set of safety
issues, despite all of our good faith efforts."

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the subcommittee, wrote
Toyota that the company misled the public by failing to reveal that
misplaced floor mats and sticking gas pedals accounted for only
some of the acceleration problems. He said the company resisted the
possibility that electronics problems were the cause.

And he wrote the transportation secretary that his agency lacked
the expertise and the will to conduct a thorough investigation.

Tuesday's hearing, along with a second House hearing Wednesday,
present a high bar in the company's attempts to persuade the public
it cares about safety.

Toyota revealed Monday that federal prosecutors and the
Securities and Exchange Commission are now investigating the
company's safety problems and what it told government
investigators.

Lentz was defiant on one point, asserting that Toyota is
confident "no problems exist with the electronic throttle control
system in our vehicles. We have designed our electronic throttle
control system with multiple fail-safe mechanisms to shut off or
reduce engine power in the event of a system failure."

Stupak wrote Lentz on Monday that committee investigators
believe he's relying on a flawed study to reach that conclusion.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in written, prepared
testimony, said his agency will ensure the safety of Toyota
vehicles. He added the department's investigation includes the
possibility that interference with electronics had a role in sudden
acceleration.

"Although we are not aware of any incident proven to be caused
by such interference, NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration) is doing a thorough review of that subject to
ensure safety," the secretary said. "If NHTSA finds a problem, we
will make sure it is resolved."

Committee investigators have made preliminary findings that the
government was slow to respond to 2,600 complaints of sudden
unintended acceleration from 2000 to 2010.

LaHood countered, "Every step of the way, NHTSA officials have
pushed Toyota to take corrective action so that consumers would be
safe."

On Wednesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform
Committee will hear from company president Akio Toyoda, who is
expected to speak to the committee and the American public through
a translator.

In an opinion piece published by The Wall Street Journal, Toyoda
acknowledged that the automaker had stumbled badly.

"It is clear to me that in recent years we didn't listen as
carefully as we should - or respond as quickly as we must - to our
customers' concerns," wrote Toyoda.

Tuesday's hearing is set to begin at 11 a.m. It will stream live on wkyt.com.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)


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