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LaHood: Toyota regulators weren't 'lap dogs'

by Peter Valdes-Dapena, senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, appearing before a Congressional panel Wednesday, defended the performance of safety regulators in dealing with problems involving Toyota cars, including unintended acceleration.

LaHood objected to a suggestion that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a part of his department, has been a "lap dog" to the auto industry.

Transportation Sec. Ray LaHood

"On my watch we have been a lapdog for nobody," LaHood said. "We've been a lapdog for the people who drive cars and want to safely. That's who we have been a lap dog for."

Investigators for the House Oversight Committee believe that NHTSA had enough evidence to demand strong action from Toyota Motor Co. over mounting complaints of unintended acceleration long before the automaker finally issued recalls for pedals that could become stuck in floor mats in the fall of 2009.

The Committee will also address concerns that Toyota had too much influence on NHTSA's investigations and worked to narrow the scope of those investigations.

Committee Chairman Edolphus Towns, (D-N.Y.) opened the hearings by saying "NHTSA failed the taxpayers, Toyota failed its customers."

The 2009 recall was prompted by a high-profile crash in San Diego that killed four people.

"There was ample evidence before the fall of 2009 when the Saylor accident occurred," said a source familiar with the panel's investigation.

Toyota vehicles already had a high number of complaints of unintended acceleration by that point, a fact that had been brought to the agency's attention at least as early as 2007 by the State Farm Insurance company.

"State Farm reports 920 reports of sudden acceleration," the source said, "most before the Saylor crash."

During the hearing, LaHood agreed with a suggestion that Toyota had been slow to respond to safety concerns raised by NHTSA and others.

"That's the reason we went to Japan," he said "That's the reason I talked to (Toyota CEO) Mr. Toyoda directly."

The automaker has changed, however, LaHood said.

"Things have changed. His visit here has been a game changer," LaHood said of Mr. Toyoda, who was scheduled to testify before the committee later Wednesday.

LaHood agreed that rules regarding former regulatory agency employees going to work for companies those agencies regulate should be tightened. Toyota has come under scrutiny for hiring two former NHTSA employees who subsequently dealt with the agency on safety investigations and recalls.

NHTSA has subpoenaed documents from Toyota in an attempt to investigate whether the automaker delayed reporting potential safety defects to the agency.

"We felt it was necessary to do a comprehensive review of this to make sure we get it right," he said.

One of Toyota's problems has been a corporate structure that placed all important decision-making in Japan.

"That's the business model," LaHood said, "I think it's failed in this instance."

LaHood denied that NHTSA lacks technical expertise to do such an investigation.

The agency has a total of 230 engineers on staff, he said, including electrical and software engineers. The agency has also gotten funding to hire an additional 66 engineers, he said.

Toyota has said it is adding brake override, a system that helps prevent unintended acceleration by automatically reducing engine power as soon as the brake pedal is pressed. LaHood told the Committee he would consider making that technology mandatory for all automobiles in the U.S. To top of page

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