WASHINGTON — U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood yesterday announced that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is seeking the maximum civil penalty of $16.375 million against Toyota Motor Corporation for failing to notify the auto safety agency of the dangerous “sticky pedal” defect for at least four months, despite knowing of the potential risk to consumers.
Approximately 2.3 million vehicles in the U.S. were recalled in late January for the sticky pedal defect.
The penalty being sought against Toyota would be the largest civil penalty ever assessed against an auto manufacturer by NHTSA.
Auto manufacturers are legally obligated to notify NHTSA within five business days if they determine that a safety defect exists. NHTSA learned through documents obtained from Toyota that the company knew of the sticky pedal defect since at least Sept. 29, 2009. That day, Toyota issued repair procedures to their distributors in 31 European countries and Canada to address complaints of sticky accelerator pedals, sudden increases in engine RPM, and sudden vehicle acceleration. The documents also show that Toyota was aware that consumers in the United States were experiencing the same problems.
“We now have proof that Toyota failed to live up to its legal obligations,” said LaHood. “Worse yet, they knowingly hid a dangerous defect for months from U.S. officials and did not take action to protect millions of drivers and their families. For those reasons, we are seeking the maximum penalty possible under current laws.”
Under NHTSA’s current authority, the maximum possible civil penalty for related violations is $16.375 million. The penalty announced today relates specifically to the “sticky pedal” defect and NHTSA is still investigating Toyota to determine if there are additional violations that warrant further penalties.
“Safety is our top priority and we will vigorously pursue companies that put consumers at risk,” said NHTSA administrator David Strickland. “We will continue to hold Toyota accountable for any additional violations we find in our ongoing investigation.”
On Feb. 16, NHTSA launched an investigation into the timeliness and scope of the three recent Toyota recalls and required the automaker to turn over documents and explanations related to its adherence to U.S. auto safety laws. NHTSA made a preliminary determination on the fine announced today based on a review of documents Toyota has provided. To date, Toyota has submitted more than 70,000 pages of documents, which NHTSA officials are continuing to review.
In a related item, Toyota will recall nearly 13,000 vehicles in South Korea due to problems with floor mats, the government said today.
Vehicles affected are the Lexus ES350, the Camry, and the Camry Hybrid, the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs said.
Problems related to the fitting of rubber floor mats presented potential danger in safe operation of the accelerators, the ministry said. Toyota says no accidents related to the floor mats have been reported in South Korea.
“In the U.S., Toyota recalled its vehicles citing three different reasons,” said Transport Ministry official Park Gwang-yul. “The defect found in Toyota vehicles in South Korea coincides with one of them.”
Toyota Motor Corp. has recalled more than 8 million vehicles worldwide since October, including more than 6 million in the U.S., because of acceleration problems in multiple models and braking issues in the Prius hybrid.
A total of 12,984 vehicles — 11,232 Lexus ES350s, 1,549 Camrys, and 203 Camry Hybrids — will be recalled in South Korea, the ministry said. It is Toyota’s second recall in South Korea after 444 vehicles were recalled in February over defects in gas pedals and floor mats.
Lee Byung-jin, a Toyota spokesman, said the cars to be recalled are all Japanese-made but the floor mats are manufactured by Toyota’s South Korean unit and added to vehicles sold in South Korea. The company said they will be repaired for free starting April 19.
Vehicles manufactured after January 2010 were found to be without fault, the ministry said.
Lee and the Transportation Ministry’s Park said neither the floor mats nor the vehicle design were at fault but that there was a problem with the compatibility of the two when assembled.
The president of Toyota Korea said he was sorry for the recall.
“I sincerely apologize to our South Korean customers and the many parties concerned for all the worry we’ve caused,” Hisao Nakabayashi said at a press conference.