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Senate committee begins new hearings on Toyota recall

By KEN THOMAS and STEPHEN MANNING
Associated Press Writers

WASHINGTON (AP) - Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said
Tuesday his agency may recommend that all new vehicles sold in the
U.S. be equipped with brakes that can override the gas pedal. The
idea seemed to be gaining support among lawmakers as Toyota
officials returned for a third hearing on lethal safety defects.
"We will not rest until these cars are safe," LaHood told the
Senate Commerce Committee.
He said the "Toyota business model is broken" but predicted
improvements. "I think you'll see some changes in the way they do
business," LaHood told the panel.
His testimony came as federal safety officials increased to 52
the number of reported deaths linked to sudden acceleration in
Toyota vehicles, through the end of last month. Previously, 34
deaths were blamed on the problem.
Toyota Motor Corp. and federal regulators both faced questions
from Congress over the giant Japanese car company's troubled safety
record.
"We know something has gone terribly wrong," said Senate
Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "The system
meant to safeguard against faulty vehicles has failed, and it needs
to be fixed and it needs to be fixed right away."
Multiple recalls have damaged Toyota's reputation and set the
stage for large numbers of death and injury lawsuits amid a
criminal investigation by federal prosecutors in New York, a probe
by the Securities and Exchange Commission and more scrutiny from
the Transportation Department. Since September, Toyota has recalled
about 6 million vehicles in the U.S.
One element of new legislation could be a requirement that all
newly manufactured cars sold in the United States have a break
override system.
Toyota has said it will put such an override system into all
future vehicles and will retrofit many recalled models. More than 8
million Toyota cars have been recalled because of sudden
acceleration or breaking defects.
The backup safety system under discussion overrides the
accelerator if the gas and brake pedals are pressed at the same
time.
"It means the brake always overrides the accelerator,"
Rockfeller said. "Why don't we require every manufacturer to do
this?"
LaHood responded: "We are looking at the possibility of
recommending the brake override system in all newly manufactured
automobiles."
The new number of 52 deaths was surfaced by the National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration, part of the Department of
Transportation. Federal officials haven't formally confirmed the
links between deaths and Toyota defects but have received a spike
in complaints since Toyota began a series of big recalls in
October.
Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, noted that not just Toyota cars
have defects, but that other automakers also have been subject to
millions of recalls. "It is not a Toyota problem, it is an
industry problem," he said.
Inouye noted that over much of the past decade, recalls of
vehicles made by Ford, General Motors and Chrysler dwarfed Toyota
recalls.
"If it is an industry problem, we should hear from the
industry, instead of just Toyota," Inouye said.
Rockefeller, whose state is the site of a Toyota plant, said,
"It is clear that somewhere along the way public safety took a
back seat and corporate profits drove the company's decisions."
Rockefeller has known Toyota's founding family since the 1960s
and helped land a Toyota engine plant in Buffalo, W.Va., during the
1990s. Rockefeller last month asked the Transportation Department's
Inspector General to conduct an audit of the government's response
to the recalls and has sought information from Toyota, the
government and auto insurers.
The committee - formally the Senate Committee on Commerce,
Science and Transportation - is probing whether Toyota and federal
safety regulators acted swiftly enough.
Three Toyota officials were due to testify later Tuesday.
Toyota President Akio Toyoda pledged last week before a House
panel to be more responsive to driver complaints and safety
warnings from the government. Toyoda made a similar promise to
improve quality control while apologizing Monday to Chinese Toyota
owners.
But the company still faces lingering doubts over the cause of
the problems, which it has blamed on gas pedals that can get
obstructed by floor mats or stick due to design flaws. Safety
experts have said the electronic systems of Toyota vehicles also
could be to blame. Toyota insists there is no evidence of an
electrical cause.
Rockefeller said that federal investigators were reluctant to
investigate whether vehicle electronics were to blame for problems
with cars speeding out of control because it is harder to detect
electronic problems.
NHTSA "would rather focus on floor mats than microchips because
they understand floor mats," Rockefeller said.
LaHood responded that his agency will do a "complete review"
of the electronics issue.
Adding to Toyota's woes, the automaker said Tuesday it is
repairing more than 1.6 million vehicles around the world,
including the U.S. and Japan, for potentially leaky oil hoses.
NHTSA is seeking records on Toyota's recalls and investigating
whether electronics were behind the vehicle defects. NHTSA also
continues to look into steering complaints from drivers of the
popular Corolla model.
Joining LaHood at the witness table was NHTSA Administrator
David Strickland, a former Senate Commerce Committee aide. The
Senate committee also heard from Clarence Ditlow, president of the
Center for Auto Safety, which has investigated the Toyota
complaints.
Toyota sent three company executives: Yoshi Inaba, Toyota's
North American president; Shinichi Sasaki, a Toyota executive vice
president who oversees quality control; and Takeshi Uchiyamada, a
Toyota executive vice president who is considered the father of the
Prius hybrid.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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