LaHood said Toyota was "safety deaf" and said the Japanese automaker made a "huge mistake" by not disclosing safety problems with gas pedals on some of its most popular models sooner. A day earlier, the DOT charged that Toyota failed to alert regulators to its safety problems fast enough and announced it would face a record $16.4 million fine.
Documents obtained from the automaker show that Toyota knew of the problem with the sticking gas pedals in late September but did not issue a recall until late January, LaHood said on Monday. The sticking pedals involved 2.3 million vehicles.
On Tuesday, LaHood said, "This is the first thing that we have found. It may not be the last thing," adding that "it would not surprise me if we discovered other information."
Under federal law, automakers must notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within five days of determining that a safety defect exists and promptly conduct a recall.
Toyota, in a statement Tuesday, said it "has and will continue to practice its philosophy of satisfying consumers with high quality vehicles that are safe and reliable, and responding to consumer feedback with honesty and integrity."
Toyota has recalled more than 6 million vehicles in the U.S. and more than 8 million worldwide because of acceleration problems in multiple models and braking issues in the Prius hybrid.
The government said documents provided by Toyota showed the automaker had known about the sticky pedal defect since at least Sept. 29, 2009, when it issued repair procedures to distributors in 31 European countries and Canada to address complaints of sticking pedals, sudden increases in engine RPM and sudden vehicle acceleration.
The Transportation Department said the documents also show that Toyota knew that owners in the United States had experienced the same problems.
The Japanese automaker was still weighing its options on Tuesday about whether to accept or contest the fine. The proposed fine is the most the government could levy, but further penalties are possible under continuing federal investigations. LaHood declined to speculate on whether Toyota will face additional fines.
Toyota's fine of $16.375 million is the largest ever levied on an automaker and dwarfs the previous record: In 2004, General Motors paid a $1 million fine for responding too slowly on a recall of nearly 600,000 vehicles over windshield wiper failure.
The fine is just one of several problems it continues to face related to its recalls. Toyota has also been named in 138 potential class-action lawsuits over falling vehicle values and nearly 100 personal injury and wrongful death cases in federal courts nationwide.
Still, Toyota's sales have stabilized over the last month thanks in large part to generous incentives. On Tuesday Toyota said it would continue to offer most of its sales incentives in April after the discounts helped drive up sales more than 40 percent last month. The incentives include cheap leases, zero-percent financing and a two-year free maintenance program.
The Transportation Department said the fine it is seeking is specifically tied to the sticking pedal defect and Toyota could face additional penalties if warranted by investigations.
The government has linked 52 deaths crashes allegedly involving sudden acceleration in Toyotas. The recalls have led to congressional hearings, a criminal investigation by federal prosecutors, dozens of lawsuits and an intense review by the Transportation Department.
Toyota has attributed the problem to sticking gas pedals and accelerators that can become jammed in floor mats. Dealers have fixed 1.7 million vehicles under recall so far. The sticky accelerator pedal recall involves the 2007-10 Camry, 2009-10 Corolla, 2009-10 Matrix, 2005-10 Avalon, 2010 Highlander and 2007-10 Tundra.
Consumer groups have suggested electronics could be the culprit, and dozens of Toyota owners who had their cars fixed in the recall have complained of more problems with their vehicles surging forward unexpectedly. Toyota says it has found no evidence of an electrical problem.
Reviews of some recent high-profile crashes in San Diego and suburban New York have failed to find either mechanical or electronic problems. In the New York case, a police investigation found that the driver, not the car, was to blame.
Following the recalls, the Transportation Department demanded in February that Toyota turn over documents detailing when and how it learned of the problems with sticking accelerators and with floor mats trapping gas pedals.
NHTSA said documents provided by Toyota showed the automaker had known about the sticky pedal defect since at least Sept. 29, 2009, when it issued repair procedures to distributors in 31 European countries and Canada to address complaints of sticking pedals, sudden increases in engine RPM and sudden vehicle acceleration.
The government said the documents also show that Toyota knew that owners in the United States had experienced the same problems.