WASHINGTON - Federal safety regulators are asking Toyota Motor Corp. to show how quickly it initiated three recalls after learning of the underlying safety risk, with the leverage of a $16.4 million fine if they determine Toyota was too slow.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is demanding Toyota documents that will show when and how it discovered the defects that led to three recalls of about 8 million vehicles in the United States.
Federal law requires all auto manufacturers to notify NHTSA within five days of determining that a safety defect exists and promptly conduct a recall.
"Safety recalls are very serious matters and automakers are required to quickly report defects," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.
At least one of Toyota's senior executives, possibly President Akio Toyoda, is expected to testify before Congress beginning Feb. 24.
"Toyota takes its responsibility to advance vehicle safety seriously and to alert government officials of any safety issue in a timely manner," Toyota said in a statement. "We are reviewing NHTSA's request and will cooperate to provide all the information they have requested."
Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at auto research firm Edmunds.com, of Santa Monica, Calif., said, "NHTSA's going to be on the hot seat every bit as much as Toyota. We're going to see a lot of this kind of wrangling as we lead up to these hearings. There are so many unanswered questions."
Toyota has initiated three recalls covering various Toyota and Lexus models. The automaker announced the first on Sept. 26, which related to the possible entrapment of gas pedals by floor mats.
That recall was expanded on Oct. 6 to include additional vehicles. A third recall, relating to possibly sticking gas pedals, was announced Jan. 21.
Toyota suspended sales and production of eight models on Jan. 26.
Dealers have repaired gas pedals on at least 500,000 of the 2.3 million vehicles covered by the recall for possibly sticking pedals.
Production on the eight models resumed last week.
NHTSA will examine how the manufacturer learned of these defects, such as through consumer complaints or factory testing.
Officials are checking whether Toyota has covered all affected models in its recent recalls to ensure Toyota did not miss any problems.
The agency will obtain information on production data, incidents, complaints, warranty complaints, copies of tests, dates of meetings, timelines, and supplier information.
The recalls have hurt sales of Toyotas, and the automaker yesterday said it was halting production temporarily in San Antonio and Georgetown, Ky., to address concerns that too many unsold vehicles may be building up at dealerships.
The Texas plant that makes the Tundra pickup truck would be down the weeks of March 15 and April 12 and the Kentucky plant, which makes the Camry, Avalon and Venza vehicles, will be shut Feb. 26 and may take off three days in March and April.
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