The federal government is investigating why Toyota delayed a recall of almost one million trucks and SUVs over defective steering rods. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said Monday that it was reviewing new evidence to determine whether Toyota met its legal obligation to "conduct a timely recall of vehicles with the defect in the United States."
"Safety is our number one priority and we take our responsibility to protect U.S. consumers seriously," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "With new assurances from Toyota about their efforts to improve safety, I hope for their cooperation in getting to the bottom of what happened."
In October, 2004 Toyota issued a recall in Japan of 330,000 vehicles to replace the steering relay rods, which were prone to breaking under stress. At the time, Toyota told NHTSA that a similar recall in the U.S. was unnecessary because it had no reports of similar problems in this country, and that driving conditions were different in Japan. Toyota did not issue a steering rod recall in the U.S. until almost a year later in September of 2005, when it acknowledged that the rods were defective. The recall affects older models of the Toyota T100 pickup truck (model years 1993-98), Toyota 4Runner (1989-95) and the Toyota Truck (1989-95).
NHTSA is now reviewing new information suggesting that, in fact, many Toyota owners in the U.S. had complained of breaking steering rods prior to 2004. The new cases emerged during a lawsuit where Toyota was sued over the death of 18-year-old Levi Stewart of Fairfield, Idaho, who was killed when his Toyota truck rolled over.
Levi's father, Michael, attributes the crash to a defective steering rod and has sued Toyota for product liability and failure to warn. During discovery in the case, Toyota turned over 40 previously undisclosed cases where American owners had complained directly to Toyota about steering rod problems before October 2004.
"NHTSA has taken swift action since first receiving copies of these complaints on Friday," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "Our team is now working to obtain documents and information from Toyota to find out whether the manufacturer notified NHTSA within five business days of discovering a safety defect in U.S. vehicles."
Toyota said it has received the Information Request from NHTSA and will fully cooperate with the agency's investigation.
During a press conference in Japan on Monday, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda denied that the company had withheld information from NHTSA on the steering rod recall. "Since we started the company, we have never hid anything," said Toyoda. "Please understand that we are not hiding anything."
Last month, Toyota agreed to pay a record fine of $16.4 million over allegations that it had knowingly delayed a recall of sticking gas pedals in the U.S. for four months. "By failing to report known safety problems as it is required to do under the law, Toyota put consumers at risk," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said at the time. Toyota denied the allegations, and said it paid the fine in order to avoid a lengthy dispute.