WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s top transportation official sharply criticized Toyota Motor Corp. on Tuesday for dragging its feet on safety concerns over its gas pedals, suggesting the automaker was “a little safety deaf” to mounting evidence of problems.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said federal safety officials had to “wake them up” to the seriousness of the safety issues that eventually led Toyota to recall millions of its popular brands such as Camry and Corolla. That included a visit to Toyota’s offices in Japan to convince them to take action.
“They should have taken it seriously from the very beginning when we first started discussing it with them,” LaHood told AP. “Maybe they were a little safety deaf.”
LaHood also said the government was considering civil penalties for Toyota over its handling of the recalls but declined to elaborate. The potential fines were first reported by the Detroit News. The largest auto industry fine came in 2004, when General Motors paid $1 million for responding too slowly on a recall of nearly 600,000 vehicles over windshield wiper failure.
The pointed comments came as Toyota showed just how painful the recall has been for the automaker that makes some of the best-selling vehicles in the United States. Sales fell 16 percent in January, hurt by Toyota’s decision to halt sales while it sorted out a fix for problems with faulty gas pedals. Most other automakers reported sales gains for the month as the broader industry continued to show signs of improvement.
One of the more trusted brands of cars and trucks, Toyota is scrambling to repair both vehicles subject to its broad recalls and its image with consumers. Toyota executives apologized Monday to consumers for the problems, which has shaken the confidence of many Toyota drivers.
The company planned to ship parts to dealers as early as Tuesday that are designed to fix pedals that could stick when drivers try to accelerate or ease up on the gas. That problem prompted the company to recall 2.3 million vehicles two weeks ago in the United States. Toyota hopes a small steel insert the size of a postage stamp will solve problems with friction that are blamed for the potential glitch.
LaHood said the Toyota recalls “may be the most serious safety issue that we have faced here at DOT” during his tenure. “This is a big deal, this is a big safety issue,” LaHood said.