Toyota Car Seized After "Near Death" Claim

Rhonda Smith and Eddie Smith of Sevierville, Tenn., are seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2010, prior to testifying before the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee hearing regarding 'Response by Toyota and NHTSA to Incidents of Sudden and Unintended Acceleration'. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) AP Photo/Alex Brandon

A government agency has purchased a Lexus made by troubled car manufacturer Toyota in order to test claims that the car malfunctioned and nearly drove its owner into a potentially deadly accident in 2006.

The car's owners, Rhonda Smith and Eddie Smith, testified before a congressional panel earlier this week, with Rhonda Smith at one point telling federal regulators "shame on you" for her "near-death" experience.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced Friday that it has bought her Toyota-made Lexus ES350 to study the car at its test center in Ohio.

"Safety is our top priority," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement Friday. "NHTSA will thoroughly examine the Smiths' car as we work to get to the bottom of possible causes for sudden acceleration."

In her testimony, Rhonda Smith blasted the Japanese automaker for failing to acknowledge the problem and criticized the NHTSA for chalking up her ordeal to a mere problem with the car's floor mats.

"Shame on you, Toyota," said Rhonda Smith, of Sevierville, Tenn. She also added a second "shame on you" directed at federal highway safety regulators.

More coverage of Toyota's troubles:
Toyota Accused of Hiding Design Evidence
Toyota Woes Highlight Hi-Tech Car Pitfalls
Did Toyota Pull Strings to Stifle Probes?
Toyota's Problems May Free Jailed Man
Toyota's Problems Shift into New Gear
Former Chief: NHTSA Badly Underfunded

Smith recounted her story to lawmakers that in October of 2006 her car started acting as though it were possessed, accelerating steadily past 70, 80 and 90 mph even as Smith applied the brakes, the emergency brake and, at one point, shifted the car into reverse.

With her husband Eddie Smith, Rhonda Smith has insisted since that day that the problem had to do with the car's faulty electronics. As evidence, she testified that after the car came to a stop, her husband was able to shift the car from park into neutral even though he didn't have the required key fob.

"This should not have happened," she testified. "As the car went into neutral, the car actually tried to start by itself with the engine turning over several times."

After repeated attempts to notify Toyota of a problem with its vehicles, Smith said the automaker eventually blamed them for incorrectly applying the brakes.

Following their contact with Toyota, the couple notified NHTSA, only to eventually receive the explanation about the floor mats.

Smith said that D. Scott Yon, one of NHTSA's safety defects engineer, came to inspect the car, but "he seemed to arrive with the pre-conceived idea to sell to us, that it was a floor mat problem," Smith said in her written testimony.

Meanwhile, the president of Toyota's U.S. operations acknowledged to lawmakers on Tuesday that the company's recalls of millions of its cars may "not totally" solve the problem of sudden and dangerous acceleration.

Toyota's James Lentz said Toyota has not completely ruled out an electronics malfunction and is still investigating causes of the sudden accelerations. Still, "we have not found a malfunction" in the electronics of any of the cars at issue, he said.

As to Smith's harrowing story, "I'm embarassed for what happened," Lentz said. "I want her and her husband to feel safe about driving our products."

Toyota has already recalled 8.5 million vehicles because of sticky gas pedals and floor mats that can trap pedals. Lentz has said before that he was confident the fixes Toyota was installing for those issues would correct the problem.

But when asked broadly by Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., whether the two recalls Toyota put in place would "solve the problem," he replied: "Not totally."

However, he said chances were "very, very slim" of unintended accelerations once the recall process was complete. Lentz also said Toyota is putting in new brakes that can override the gas pedal on almost all of its new vehicles and a majority of its vehicles already on the road.
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