Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Toyota was slow to deal with safety problems with its gas pedals, asserting in an interview Tuesday that it took government pressure to force the company to recall millions of its most popular vehicles.
LaHood, in an interview with The Associated Press, defended his department's handling of the Toyota investigation and said the Japanese automaker was "a little safety deaf" during its probe of the problem. The company was so resistant, LaHood said, that it took a trip from federal safety officials to Japan to "wake them up" to the seriousness of the pedal problems.
"They should have taken it seriously from the very beginning when we first started discussing it with them," LaHood told AP. "Maybe they were a little safety deaf in their North American office until we went to Japan."
"If it had not been for the work of (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) pushing Toyota to make the recall, traveling to Japan, meeting with the top officials of Toyota in Japan and telling them that their folks in the United States seem to be a little safety deaf when it came to us talking to them, I don't know if the recall would be taking place," LaHood said.
LaHood's remarks were his most pointed since Toyota recalled 2.3 million vehicles in the United States due to concerns over gas pedals that can stick when drivers step on the gas. The Jan. 21 recall followed a separate action in October to recall millions more over problems with pedals catching on floor mats.
Toyota has said it first received a complaint of sticking gas pedals back in 2007 but determined its cars were not at fault, reports CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds.
Former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook said Toyota has long been resistant to regulation.
"I think Toyota has been recalcitrant and very secretive and it does not like to recall vehicles and I think it did everything it could to delay this issue," Claybrook told Reynolds.
"The first line of defense is 'The consumer was wrong, they stepped on the accelerator instead of the brake. It's their fault,'" Claybrook said.
Read more about the Toyota recall at CBSNews.com:
Analyst: Recall Costs Toyota $155M a Week
Does Toyota's Problem Go Beyond Pedals?
Toyota: New Pedal Parts on Way to Dealers
Government OKs Toyota Gas Pedal Fix
The transportation secretary said the government was considering civil penalties for Toyota but declined to elaborate. NHTSA has fined automakers in the past for delaying a recall. The largest came in 2004, when General Motors paid a $1 million fine for failing to conduct a timely recall to correct a safety defect involving the failure of windshield wipers.
But, "It took a trip from (NHTSA deputy administrator) Ron Medford to Japan to wake them up to the idea that this is a serious issue, it's a serious safety issue," LaHood said. "We're not going to sit by and let these kinds of crashes occur without them taking very, very quick action."
LaHood later clarified his remarks, telling AP that Toyota's North American office took the safety problem seriously but had difficulty convincing their counterparts in Japan about its severity. "It wasn't the case that they weren't listening. It was the case that Japan wasn't listening to North America," LaHood said.
"That's the reason that Ron Medford went to Japan. Because I think he was frustrated that the people at the North American office ... were listening to him but I think he felt that that wasn't really getting across to the folks over in Japan," LaHood said.
Toyota apologized to its customers Monday and announced a fix that will involve inserting a piece of steel about the size of a postage into the gas pedal assembly to address potential excess friction. In rare cases, Toyota says, the friction can cause the pedal to become stuck in the depressed position.
Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, told reporters Monday that the recalls were an embarrassment for the company but it was acting quickly to address the problem. "We have to redouble our efforts to make sure this doesn't happen again," he said.
Asked for reaction to LaHood's comments to the AP, Toyota said in a statement Tuesday: "Nothing is more important to us than the safety and reliability of the vehicles our customers drive. Secretary LaHood said to us that the soonest possible action would be in the best interests of our customers, and we took his advice very seriously and instituted a recall."
"We are very grateful for his advice and we feel that we have been given a chance to regain our customers' trust," Toyota said.
Federal data show Toyota accelerator complaints have markedly increased in the last two years and totaled nearly 600 in 2009 - facts excluded from sales pitches to customers.
"In the economic downturn they sacrificed quality and now that has come back to bite 'em," new Toyota owner Shirley Marcum told Reynolds.
Beginning in 2003, the government conducted several investigations into reports of unwanted acceleration involving Toyota vehicles but failed to find any evidence that the vehicles were defective. When the government probed reports of floor mats in Lexus vehicles jamming gas pedals, Toyota said there was "no possibility of pedal interference" with the floor mats if they were placed properly and secured.
But a government survey of Lexus owners found dozens of reports of sudden acceleration and evidence that in some crashes owners had pressed hard on the brakes but failed to stop the vehicles. The investigation led Toyota to recall an accessory all-weather floor mat for 55,000 Lexus vehicles in September 2007.
The problems grew last August when a California Highway Patrol officer and three family members were killed in a high-speed crash aboard a 2009 Lexus ES350. The Lexus hit speeds exceeding 120 mph, struck a sport utility vehicle, launched off an embankment, rolled several times and burst into flames as a family member called 911.
There are the increasing reports of runaway acceleration in Toyota models not currently on the recall list; in addition to the Lexus problems, at least one Sienna has been tied to a fatal accident involving accelerator problems.
In that case, and the Lexus crash last year, suspicion fell on - something federal officials are now investigating.
In October, Toyota recalled more than 4 million vehicles to replace floor mats that were suspected of causing accelerators to get stuck, leading to crashes. The recall has since grown to more than 5 million vehicles.
Auto analysts estimate that recalling and repairing millions of cars will cost Toyota at least $900 million, with .
Following the latest recall and Toyota's decision to stop selling those vehicles, LaHood told reporters Monday that Toyota had "done the right thing" and urged car owners to contact their dealers immediately and remain cautious until repairs can be made.
But he defended the department's review of the Toyota case in the interview, arguing that NHTSA had conducted several investigations of the vehicles and pushed Toyota to recall the vehicles. "I'm not going to take a back seat to anybody when it comes to safety," LaHood said.
Underscoring his concern, LaHood said the Toyota recalls "may be the most serious safety issue that we have faced here at DOT" during his tenure. "This is a big deal, this is a big safety issue," LaHood said.
The role of the government and the company in the recalls is drawing scrutiny in Congress. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has launched an investigation into the recalls and scheduled a Feb. 10 hearing examining the risk to the public. LaHood and other DOT officials are expected to testify. Committee officials also have asked Yoshi Inaba, chairman and CEO of Toyota Motor North America, to testify and are expected to seek testimony from a consumer or consumer group. Separately, the investigative panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is planning a Feb. 25 hearing on the Toyota cases.