Spurred in part by the death of a teenage Toyota driver, the federal government is investigating why Toyota delayed a recall of almost one million trucks and SUVs over defective steering rods.
In October 2004, Toyota issued a recall in Japan of 330,000 vehicles to replace the steering relay rods, which the company found were prone to breaking under stress. 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 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (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 because of a lawsuit in which Toyota is being sued over the death of 18-year-old Levi Stewart, who was killed when his Toyota truck rolled over.
The accident took place on a country road outside Fairfield, Idaho. Levi Stewart's father Michael was one of the volunteer firemen who responded to the scene.
"When we got there, the devastation was just more than you could handle," said Michael Stewart.
Three months after Levi's death in 2007 , a long-delayed recall notice from Toyota arrived in the mail at the Stewart home. In the worst case, the notice said, the steering relay rod might fracture, causing a loss of vehicle steering control and thus increasing the possibility of a crash. Levi's family believes Toyota knew of the steering rod relay's defect long before the fatal accident, and should have issued the recall notice months earlier.
"That immediately explained how the wreck happened," said Michael Stewart. "I was just shocked. How could they wait so long to send out a recall on something so important?"
He 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. "Not only did they not reveal it, they said they didn't have the information," said John Kristensen, the Stewarts' lawyer.
Now the Toyota official who sent the letter, Christopher Tinto, has conceded under oath the information was even kept from him by company executives in Japan.
Said Joan Claybrook, former NHTSA administrator and former head of the advocacy group Public Citizen, "It's a knowing and willful cover-up of information that should have been given to the agency and that would have resulted in a recall and the saving of lives and the prevention of injury."
At the time of the Japanese steering rod recall, 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.
The U.S. recall affected older models of the Toyota T100 pickup truck (model years 1993-98), Toyota 4Runner (1989-95) and the Toyota Truck (1989-95).
In announcing an investigation of Toyota's decision to wait for a U.S. recall, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said "safety is our number one priority. ... "With new assurances from Toyota about their efforts to improve safety, I hope for their cooperation in getting to the bottom of what happened." 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.