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Toyota hearings: senators say carmaker put profit over safety

Toyota hearings resumed Tuesday on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers pressed three top officials on what the company knew and when they knew it. In Japan, there's a suspicion the recalls are about rolling back the carmaker's market share.

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Senators pressed for assurances that someone would be held accountable for errors of the past, especially the failure to respond to thousands of complaints from US Toyota owners since at least 2003 that brakes had no impact on suddenly surging Toyota vehicles. (For Monitor coverage of a report on sudden car acceleration, click here.)

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US officials were also under the gun for failing to respond promptly to consumer complaints and aggressively investigate accident reports. In his opening statement, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood encouraged owners of recalled vehicles to remove floor mats and pay special attention to gas pedals.

“If your accelerator becomes stuck for any reason, steadily apply the brake, put the car in neutral, bring it to a stop in a safe place, and call your dealer," he said.

But senators pressed for answers to why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did not also investigate possible design flaws in Toyota’s electronic systems or electro-magnetic interference (EMI). “To date, we have not identified any particular crash or unsafe occurrence that can clearly be attributed to such a flaw,” Secretary LaHood told the panel.

In response, Rockefeller said that the committee staff had reviewed thousands of pages of NHTSA documentation that “fairly clearly shows that NHTSA employees are reluctant to do investigations of the vehicle’s electronics, because it’s much more difficult to detect.”

NHTSA investigators “would rather focus on floor mats than microchips, because they understand floor mats, they're more comfortable with floor mats. They don't understand microchips. You're going to change that, but this is what the situation has been,” he said.

At an impromptu press conference after the hearing, Japanese reporter Toshi Ogata, Washington correspondent for the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, asked Rockefeller to comment on widespread views in Japan that American lawmakers were conducting hearings to “break” Toyota. (For Monitor coverage on how the recalls are viewed in Japan, click here.)

“Don’t take one second of your time” on that view,” Rockefeller said.

But several Republican senators said that, with the US government now the majority shareholder in General Motors, it is understandable that such an issue would be raised. “It’s why the US government should never have an ownership stake in a private company – so that that question could never be asked,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee.