WASHINGTON — The largest U.S. auto insurer said yesterday it alerted federal safety regulators in late 2007 about a rise in reports of unexpected acceleration in Toyota vehicles, the latest warning sign to emerge about the massive recall.
State Farm insurance said it noticed an uptick in reports of unwanted acceleration in Toyotas from its large customer database and warned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in late 2007. NHTSA officials said the report was reviewed and the agency issued a recall later that month.
NHTSA received complaints about acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles as early as 2003, and congressional investigators are looking into whether the government missed warning signs of the problems. A congressional hearing into the Toyota recalls planned for Wednesday was postponed because of a snowstorm expected to hit the capital.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said it will hold the Toyota hearing on Feb. 24, the first of three congressional hearings expected to review the Japanese automaker’s recall of about 8.5 million vehicles globally over floor mats which can trap gas pedals, sticking gas pedals and brake problems.
A Democratic staff memo from the Oversight Committee said neither Toyota nor federal safety officials have identified all causes of unintended acceleration in the vehicles. The memo said there was substantial evidence that remedies such as redesigned floor mats have failed to solve the problem.
Meantime, Toyota announced early Tuesday it would recall about 437,000 Prius and other hybrid vehicles to fix brake problems. There have been about 200 complaints in Japan and the U.S. about a delay when the brakes in the Prius were pressed in cold conditions and on some bumpy roads.
The U.S. government has launched an investigation into the Prius. In a statement, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Toyota has acknowledged a safety defect by issuing the Prius recall, which includes 133,000 Prius cars and 14,500 Lexus HS250h vehicles in the United States.
LaHood said Toyota leaders had assured him they were taking the safety concerns “very seriously” and the transportation agency will “remain in constant communication with Toyota to hold them to that promise.” U.S. owners will start receiving letters about the recall next week.
With respect to the 2007 alert, State Farm said that it routinely tracks claim trend information and shares its data with NHTSA. “In the name of safety, we voluntarily and routinely communicate with the appropriate government agencies when we see a product-related claim trend,” spokesman Jeff McCollum said in an e-mail.
NHTSA spokeswoman Karen Aldana said State Farm forwarded the agency a Sept. 7, 2007, claim letter to Toyota concerning a crash involving a 2005 Camry. She said the report was reviewed and added to their complaint database.
The agency had been investigating problems with floor mats in Toyota vehicles and later in September 2007, Toyota recalled 55,000 Camry and ES350 vehicles to replace the floor mats.
Toyota officials have apologized for the recalls and vowed to fix customer vehicles. Akio Toyoda, the company’s president and grandson of its founder, wrote in an opinion article in The Washington Post on Tuesday that Toyota “has not lived up to the high standards you have come to expect of us” and called the recent spate of problems “the most serious” the company has ever faced.
“We fully understand that we need to more aggressively investigate complaints we hear directly from consumers and move more quickly to address any safety issues we identify,” Toyoda wrote.
Separately, federal safety officials said they will review complaints from Toyota Corolla drivers about steering difficulties on their vehicles. NHTSA said it has received about 80 complaints from drivers of 2009 and 2010 Corollas. Many said their cars could wander when they drive on the highway, making it hard to stay in lanes.
NHTSA said it will determine if a formal safety investigation is warranted. But agency officials also stressed that it was standard procedure to review the tens of thousands of driver complaints they get every year on a wide range of vehicles.