The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has demanded documents from Toyota to determine if the company acted quickly enough in three recent major car recalls affecting nearly 6 million vehicles.
"Safety recalls are very serious matters and automakers are required to quickly report defects," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Regulators asked for the documents as part of an investigation into how and when the automaker discovered alleged problems with sticky gas pedals and floor mats, and whether the defects were identified via consumer complaint or factory testing. According to federal law, car makers must notify the government within five days of finding a safety defect.
Officials also want to know whether Toyota covered all affected models in its recent recalls.
"Our top priority is safety and we expect that all manufacturers address automotive safety issues quickly and in a forthright manner," said David Strickland, NHTSA's top official.
The three recalls were announced in September 2007, October 2009 and January 2010. The first two recalls involved alleged interference by floor mats with gas pedals, while the third was supposed to address "sticky" gas pedals.
The letter was sent to Chris Tinto, a former NHTSA official who is now Toyota's vice president for regulatory affairs in Washington. Tinto was formerly with NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation. After leaving NHTSA to work for Toyota, Tinto helped negotiate a limited scope for the first investigation of random acceleration in Toyotas – so-called "Runaway Toyotas" – in 2004.
An ABC News investigation found that federal safety investigators agreed to exclude reports of the most serious cases of alleged "runaway Toyotas" after the intervention of Tinto and another former safety official, Chris Santucci, who were hired to be Washington, D.C. representatives of Toyota.
As a result, the federal investigation of Toyota's computer-controlled throttle in 2004 never examined any case in which the sudden acceleration lasted longer than a second or two, or in which the driver tried to brake, effectively ruling out all high-speed episodes.
"It's beyond explanation," said Edgar Heiskell, a lawyer suing Toyota over a fatal crash of a Camry in Detroit which allegedly raced out of control. "I have not seen an explanation that makes sense," he said. Toyota officials have repeatedly referred to the federal investigations as confirmation there is no electronic or computer defect causing some of their cars to race out of control.
But internal government memos and court testimony analyzed by ABC News show the federal investigations were extremely limited in scope, after negotiations involving former safety investigators who had been recruited to work for Toyota's Washington, D.C. office.
"Longer duration incidents involving uncontrollable acceleration" were deemed to be "not within the scope of this investigation," according to a 2004 memorandum in NHTSA's files.
The memorandum was written on March 23, 2004, shortly after NHTSA official Scott Yon met with two former NHTSA colleagues who had gone to work for Toyota,Tinto and Santucci, according to Santucci's testimony in a civil lawsuit.
"We discussed the scope," Santucci testified. "I think it worked out well for both the agency and Toyota."