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U.S. regulators were told of Toyota claims in 2004, insurer says


U.S. regulators were told of Toyota claims in 2004, insurer says

Automotive News | February 20, 2010 – 12:01 am EST


DETROIT (Reuters) — The largest U.S. auto insurer alerted regulators earlier than first believed about a worrying trend of accidents involving Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles, while the Obama administration’s top transportation official said on Friday he would not relax pressure on the carmaker.

Both developments came as Toyota’s president, Akio Toyoda, readied to fly to Washington in an extraordinary appearance to answer questions from lawmakers next Wednesday about the safety crisis that has engulfed the company founded by his grandfather.

State Farm, whose records have been sought by two congressional committees investigating recalls and complaints related to unintended acceleration in Toyota cars and trucks, revised its report on Friday of when it notified the government about certain Toyota claims activity.

The insurer said earlier this month it had contacted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in late 2007. However, prompted by the public interest in Toyota, the insurer reviewed its records again and has now found that it contacted safety regulators initially in 2004, State Farm spokesman Phil Supple said in an e-mailed statement.

The information has been sought by House of Representatives committees probing questions around recent recalls of millions of Toyota vehicles related to loose floor mats that can jam accelerators and gas pedals that do not spring back as designed.

Hearings on tap

The government believes five crash deaths are linked to unintended acceleration and are investigating consumer complaints alleging up to 29 other fatalities since 2000 could be linked as well. Regulators have not linked any deaths to the "sticky pedal" problem.

The first of three congressional hearings takes place on Tuesday but much of the focus for the moment has settled on the second hearing, the next day, when company president Toyoda is scheduled to testify.

The media-shy Toyoda, who took the top job last June, originally said he had no intention of appearing before Congress himself, drawing criticism from industry analysts and Japanese politicians.

Even if Toyoda’s appearance before the Oversight panel goes well, the carmaker still has problems to overcome from engineering challenges to lawsuits to restoring brand image.

Toyota’s stock has fallen 22 percent since Jan. 21, erasing more than $30 billion in market value.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on Friday that he is "very pleased" he will be able to meet Toyoda next week, and that the government has no intention of turning down the heat on the automaker.

"We at DOT (the Department of Transportation) and we at our safety agency (the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration) will continue to work 24/7 and we will not sleep until every Toyota is safe for every American who owns one," LaHood told a news conference in Los Angeles.

Testimony expected

Congress is examining several issues in a string of Toyota recalls that date to September. A priority of lawmakers is how Toyota and NHTSA handled complaints and other matters related to unintended acceleration, whether the recalls were done swiftly enough, and whether they were sufficient.

The Oversight committee will also hear from LaHood and a witness representing the family of Mark Saylor, a California highway patrol officer killed along with his wife, daughter and brother-in-law in an August crash that triggered renewed government scrutiny of unintended acceleration.

Toyoda has said the company is investigating the causes of the unintended acceleration and braking that have led to a recall of about 8.5 million cars worldwide.

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