On Aug. 28, 2009, Mark Saylor, his wife Cleofe Saylor, their 13-year-old… (Detroit Free Press )
Having already paid record fines for not promptly recalling cars, Toyota Motor Corp. will pay the government another $17.35 million to federal safety regulators.
The latest fine, announced Tuesday, is for not promptly recalling Lexus RX 350s and RX 450h sport-utility vehicles because a floor mat on the driver’s side could jam the gas pedal, causing the car to accelerate when the driver didn’t intend to.
“It’s critical to the safety of the driving public that manufacturers report safety defects in a timely manner,” said David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Every moment of delay has the potential to lead to deaths or injuries on our nation’s highways.”
Federal lawrequires all auto manufacturers to notify NHTSA within five business days of determining that a safety defect exists or that the vehicle is not in compliance with federal motor vehicle safety standards and to promptly conduct a recall.
“We agreed to this settlement in order to avoid a time-consuming dispute and to focus fully on our shared commitment with NHTSA to keep drivers safe," said Ray Tanguay, chief quality officer of Toyota North America.
"Toyota is dedicated to the safety of our customers, and we continue to strengthen our data collection and evaluation process to ensure we are prepared to take swift action to meet customers' needs,” he said.
“While it may sound like a lot of money to you and me, the fine isn’t a speed bump for a big car company. That’s because of the statutory limits,” said Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman at auto information company Edmunds.com.
“We are going to run into more of these. Think of all the equipment on cars that people are not fully conversant with. This was a floor mat, not a mechanical issue. This was an accessory fitting issue,” Anwyl said.
Regulators are making a statement that automakers need to recall cars even if they are still investigating an issue and are not sure what the proper repair will be, he said. Generally, car companies like to announce a recall and a fix at the same time.
Two years ago Toyota paid a record $48.8 million in fines as a result of three separate investigations into the automaker’s handling of auto recalls for similar pedal entrapment problems in other vehicles, sticky gas pedals and steering relay rod problems.
This week’s fine resulted from a probe launched earlier this year when NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation began noticing a trend in floor mat pedal entrapment in 2010 Lexus RX 350s. Safety regulators asked Toyota about the problem in May and were told by the automaker of 63 alleged incidents of possible floor mat pedal entrapment in 2010 Lexus RX 350s dating back to 2009.
“Toyota’s own technicians and dealer technicians reported that certain alleged incidents of unwanted acceleration had been caused by floor mat pedal entrapment,” the agency said.
But it was not until June when Toyota announced a recall of 154,036 2010 Lexus RX 350 and 2010 RX 450h vehicles to address floor mat pedal entrapment.
As part of the settlement, Toyota agreed to make internal changes to quality assurance and review of safety in the U.S., NHTSA said.
“With today’s announcement, I expect Toyota to rigorously reinforce its commitment to adhering to United States safety regulations,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.
Toyota has had a history of problems with unintended acceleration. In one high-profile accident, an improperly positioned floor mat in a Lexus sedan may have trapped the accelerator -- causing the car to race down California Highway 125 near San Diego at more than 100 mph. The car crashed and burned, killing off-duty California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor and three members of his family.
That crash led to a safety investigation and recall of 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles to fix the floor mat problem. After a Los Angeles Times series on unintended sudden acceleration, Toyota issued millions more recall notices to fix sticking gas pedals and other issues. At one point it had to halt much of its production of new cars in the U.S. to fix recalled vehicles.
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