Toyota Victim Recounts "Near Death" Trip

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

Updated at 3:47 p.m. EST

As her Lexus sped uncontrollably at 100 miles per hour down a Tennessee highway, Rhonda Smith was sure she was going to die.

It was back in October of 2006 and Smith was on her way to visit her 85-year-old father. After getting on Interstate-40, her Toyota-manufactured 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.

It finally started to slow down on its own and Smith lived to tell the tale of her "near death" experience. But her attempts to do so were only met with frustration.

In recounting this harrowing tale to lawmakers Tuesday, Smith set the tone for congressional hearings into the response of Toyota and federal regulators to a rash of sudden unintended accelerations in the U.S. and other nations that have been linked to 34 deaths and the recall of millions of vehicles.

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

"Shame on you, Toyota," Rhonda Smith, of Sevierville, Tenn., said at a congressional hearing. Then she added a second "shame on you" directed at federal highway safety regulators.

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Smith, along with her husband Eddie, 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.

"We are vigilant and we continue to look for potential causes," Toyota's James Lentz told a congressional panel. However, he repeated his company's position that stuck gas pedals in some of the company's most popular model cars and trucks were caused by one of two problems - misplaced floor mats or sticking accelerator pedals.

He insisted electronic systems connected to the gas pedal and fuel line did not contribute to the problem, drawing sharp criticism from lawmakers who said such a possibility should not be ruled out.

In addition, CBS News has learned that as early as 2005 Toyota engineers were redesigning software in response to complaints of cars surging unexpectedly, reports CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.

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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