The top U.S. transport official labeled recalled Toyota Motor Corp vehicles not safe as the Japanese automaker's president waited to be grilled by lawmakers about recent safety lapses.
For those cars that are listed on our website, dot.gov, for recall to go back, those are not safe, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
President Akio Toyoda pledged to cooperate fully with U.S. government officials as he arrived for the hearing, ready to say the automaker let standards slip in its rise to the top.
Toyoda's appearance marks a dramatic peak in a safety crisis that broke a month ago with a series of recalls over unintended acceleration and braking problems that now includes more than 8.5 million vehicles globally.
The unintended acceleration problems have been linked to at least five U.S. deaths, with 29 other fatality reports being examined by U.S. authorities.
The chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform opened the hearing by recounting a horrific crash that sparked the big recalls and blasting Toyota for boasting of saving $100 million by limiting a 2007 recall of floor mats implicated in the fatal accident.
Toyota either ignored or minimized reports of sudden acceleration, said oversight panel chairman Edolphus Towns, a Democrat from New York.
At a February 3 congressional hearing, LaHood had advised owners of recalled Toyotas to stop driving their cars. He later told reporters he had misspoken.
LaHood reiterated on Wednesday that Toyota owners should take their vehicles to dealers to make sure they are repaired.
He also repeated promises that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would thoroughly investigate the possibility of electronic problems causing unintended acceleration.
The two recalls for that issue so far involve floor mats that can trap the accelerator and sticky pedal mechanisms.
Upon his arrival at a congressional office building on Wednesday morning, Toyoda read a short statement in Japanese to waiting reporters.
This is a very valuable opportunity to appear today and I am very grateful to Congress for this invitation, said Toyoda, who was accompanied by Yoshi Inaba, Toyota's chief of North American operations.
Safety is our top priority and I intend to cooperate fully with the U.S. government, he said.
Toyoda, who has appeared uneasy with the global spotlight in the past month, waited for a translator to deliver his short statement in English and then walked briskly off when prompted by an aide, declining to take questions from reporters.
Toyota, founded by Toyoda's grandfather, now faces a criminal investigation and a securities probe in the United States as well as unresolved questions about hundreds of incidents of unintended acceleration reported by consumers.
Toyoda, one of eight witnesses set to appear on Wednesday, is due to appear after LaHood.
LaHood said U.S. officials were still investigating whether Toyota had dragged its feet on recalls and said it could face punitive fines. But he credited Toyoda with driving change at the automaker he said had become a little safety-deaf.
Things have changed. His visit has been a game changer, LaHood said.
The panel will also hear from a relative of Mark Saylor, an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer who was killed last August, along with three members of his family, when the Toyota Lexus sedan he was driving sped out of control.
In his prepared testimony, Toyoda extended his condolences to the Saylor family and said he was deeply sorry that the company had allowed quality standards to slip during a period of fast growth over the past decade.
Toyota has promised internal reforms intended to increase attention to safety and ensure that future recalls happen more quickly in response to consumer complaints.
'A DECADE OF NEGLECT'
Darrell Issa, the ranking Republican on the oversight panel, said regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had to face as much scrutiny as Toyota.
We're going to hold NHTSA accountable for a decade of neglect just as much as Toyota, said Issa, who has been outspoken about the need for Toyoda himself to appear before Congress.
He's the only person who can bring real change on behalf of his company, he told Reuters Insider. Issa's California district neighbors the San Diego site of the Saylor crash.
Issa and Towns agreed there should be further hearings with officials from the Bush administration which covered much of the period that NHTSA was examining acceleration complaints, beginning in 2003.
Earlier on Wednesday, Japan's transport regulator said the government would look into 38 reports of unintended acceleration with Toyota cars over three years, raising the pressure on the world's top automaker.
In order for Toyota to manage growth better, some analysts have said the company needs to slow down its product development cycle, easing pressure on engineering teams that have been stretched to the breaking point.
Toyota's U.S. sales chief, Jim Lentz, said on Tuesday he was not totally sure that the company's recalls to date would address all of the cases of unintended acceleration.
Under questioning, he agreed that about 70 percent of consumer reports of such incidents were not linked to the floor mats or because of the pedal glitch.
Toyota has said it will cooperate with the NHTSA probe into whether electronic problems could be to blame for episodes where drivers report that its cars have surged forward.
(Additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki and Kim Dixon in WASHINGTON; David Bailey in DETROIT; Graphic by Catherine Trevethan; Writing by Tim Dobbyn; Editing by Nathan Layne and Matthew Lewis)