"To give that horrifying number some perspective, there were 27 deaths attributed to the famous Pinto exploding gas tank of the 1970s," said Rep. Edolphus Towns, D.-N.Y., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
"In short, if the Camry and the Prius were airplanes, they would be grounded," said Towns in his opening statement.
Towns charged Toyota withheld information from federal safety regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and he also accused NHTSA of failing to aggressively investigate nearly 2,500 consumer complaints of sudden acceleration in Toyotas since 1970.
"NHTSA failed the taxpayers and Toyota failed their customers," said the committee chairman.
The NHTSA administrator, David Strickland, had been scheduled to testify this morning but was "pulled" late last night by the Obama administration, according to committee staff members.
A spokesman for ranking Republican member Rep. Darrell Issa of California, Kurt Bardella, said no explanation was offered for Strickland's sudden withdrawal by the Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.
"It's very obvious that there is an effort to circle the wagons and control who will speak to Congress and when," said Bardella. "If this committee fails to receive satisfactory answers today, we will not hesitate to convene a second hearing next week so we get the answers the American people are demanding."
While testifying before the committee today, LaHood defended NHTSA's defect investigations. "Every step of the way NHTSA has pushed Toyota to make sure consumers would be safe," he said. "We have not been sitting around on our hands."
As to allegations that an electronic or computer glitch may be a cause of some of the runaway cars, LaHood said, "We will get into the weeds on this to see if there is an electornic problem." It was only after a series of ABC News reports that NHTSA and Toyota began a series of intensive investigation of possible electronic issues.