MIAMI — Toyota waited nearly a year in 2005 to recall trucks and SUVs in the United States with defective steering rods, despite issuing a similar recall in Japan and receiving dozens of reports from American motorists about rods that snapped without warning, an Associated Press investigation has found.
The lengthy gap — strikingly similar to Toyota's handling of the recent recall for sudden acceleration problems — triggered a new investigation Monday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which could fine the automaker up to $16.4 million. That was also the amount Toyota paid last month in the acceleration case.
"Our team is working to obtain documents and information from Toyota to find out whether the manufacturer notified NHTSA within five business days of discovering a safety defect in U.S. vehicles," NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said in a statement.
Federal regulators "are taking this seriously and reviewing the facts to determine whether a timeliness investigation is warranted," NHTSA spokeswoman Karen Aldana told the AP in response to questions about the 2005 recall.
An automaker is required to notify NHTSA about a defect within five days of determining one exists.
NHTSA has now linked 16 crashes, three deaths and seven injuries to the steering rod defect. When a steering rod snaps, the driver cannot control the vehicle because the front wheels will not turn.
After the 2004 Japanese recall, Toyota claimed initially that it had scant evidence of a steering rod problem among U.S. trucks and SUVs. But the AP found that the automaker had received at least 52 reports from U.S. drivers about the defect before vehicles were recalled in Japan.
Toyota told the AP that it has now confirmed seven total cases in the U.S. of steering problems in the T100 small pickup and no reports of accidents or injuries. Company spokesman Brian Lyons said Monday that the automaker received an information request from NHTSA and intended to cooperate with the agency's inquiry.
Toyota claimed in a 2004 letter to NHTSA obtained by the AP that driving conditions in Japan were so different from those on U.S. roads that a recall was not necessary for 4Runner SUVs and T100 pickups, known in Japan as the Hilux and Hilux Surf. That was despite the vehicles having nearly identical steering components, according to company documents filed with the NHTSA.