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LaHood: Recalled Toyotas "Not Safe"

Updated at 1:21 p.m. EST

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood defended the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration's performance during the Toyota recall and said vehicles on the recall list weren't safe as he faced his second House panel in as many days.

"We have listed every Toyota that's up for recall" on the Transportation Department Web site, LaHood said. "I want anybody who has one of those cars to take it to the dealer and make sure it gets fixed."

LaHood said those vehicles on the recall list posted on his department's Website "are not safe."

Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said the NHTSA failed to follow through aggressively on thousands of complaints dating back a decade about sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

NHTSA, which is part of the Transportation Department, "failed the taxpayers and Toyota failed their customers," Towns declared ahead of eagerly awaited testimony by Akio Toyoda, the company's chief executive.

"Thousands of complaints, multiple investigations, and serial recalls are bad enough. But we now have 39 deaths attributed to sudden acceleration in Toyotas," Towns said. "To give that horrifying number perspective, there were 27 deaths attributed to the famous (Ford) Pinto exploding gas tank of the 1970s."

LaHood said the NHTSA has acted aggressively to force Toyota to address safety problems. He also told lawmakers Tuesday that the agency is looking closely at whether the car's electronics are to blame.

"We will get in the weeds on this," he testified.

He called the beleaguered safety agency the "most effective" in the world, one that fields more than 30,000 complaints each year.

"We take every one seriously," he insisted. "We haven't been sitting on our hands."

David Strickland, the new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, had been on the list of witnesses but was removed right before the hearing started.

Republicans pressed LaHood about why Strickland was dropped from the hearing witness list, saying they may call him for another hearing. LaHood said Strickland has held his post for only a short time and that LaHood would answer for the safety agency.

"I am not going have our NHTSA administrator, who has been on the job 40 days, appear. I am taking responsibility for this," LaHood said.

Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce Committee requested an investigation by the Transportation Department's inspector general of NHTSA's handling of the Toyota recalls. The committee wants the IG to expand the review to include industry-wide complaints and reports collected by the agency on unintended acceleration or brake failure, compliance with recent auto safety laws and government ethics at NHTSA.

Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the leading Republican on the House oversight panel, waved a gas pedal before LaHood and complained that Toyota knew about problems of sticking gas pedals and improperly placed floor mats years ago and made some fixes on models sold in Japan but delayed addressing the problems on other cars, including some of its most popular models sold in the U.S., until just recently.

Issa also accused NHTSA Wednesday of falling down on the job, saying on CBS's "The Early Show" he believes the agency was too cozy with the industry it regulated and that NHTSA had "abandoned" safety investigations that should have been further pursued.

"There's no question that they [the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration] are guilty of welcoming in its revolving door former [auto company] employees and case after case abandoning investigations they already decided had some merit," Issa said.

Toyoda, the automaker's 53-year-old Japanese chief executive will testify is set to testify after LaHood. Toyoda has accepted "full responsibility" for the halting steps that led to the recall. He said the company grew too fast to keep up with safety controls.

Also scheduled to appear was the mother of an off-duty California highway patrolmen killed with three family members in a runaway Lexus on a San Diego highway in August.

Lawmakers indicated they will continue to push Toyoda for answers on whether its top-selling cars and trucks are safe to drive. The Transportation Department's vehicle safety division also faces continued questions over whether it took the problem seriously enough and paid attention to warnings signs with Toyotas long before the recalls.

Toyota has recalled some 8.5 million vehicles worldwide - more than 6 million in the United States - since last fall because of unintended acceleration problems in multiple models and braking issues in the Prius hybrid. It is also investigating steering concerns in Corollas.

People with Toyotas have complained of their vehicles speeding out of control despite efforts to slow down, sometimes resulting in deadly crashes. The government has received complaints of 34 deaths linked to sudden acceleration of Toyota vehicles since 2000.

Congressional panels are asking whether computerized modern automotive electronics designed to make cars more efficient can sometimes make them less safe.

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