Toyota U.S. Chief Apologizes For Mishandling Safety

President of Toyota's U.S. operations apologizing for automaker's slow handling of sudden acceleration problems in its vehicles, saying it took too long to confront the issue.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The president of Toyota's U.S. operations insisted Tuesday that electronic problems did not contribute to sudden acceleration of its cars, drawing sharp criticism from lawmakers who said such a possibility should not be ruled out.

Toyota's James Lentz repeated Toyota's position that stuck gas pedals in some of the company's most popular models were caused by one of two problems -- misplaced floor mats and sticking accelerator pedals.

Meanwhile, Toyota president Akio Toyoda, who will testify before a separate panel on Wednesday, said he took "full responsibility" for the uncertainty felt by Toyota owners and offered his condolences to a San Diego, Calif., family who were killed in late August, reigniting interest in the problems.

"I will do everything in my power to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again," Toyoda said in prepared testimony for Wednesday's hearing to the House Government Oversight Committee. "My name is on every car. You have my personal commitment that Toyota will work vigorously and unceasingly to restore the trust of our customers," Toyoda said.

Lawmakers heard a brief, but riveting, description of the problem from Rhonda Smith, a Sevierville, Tenn., woman whose Toyota-made Lexus suddenly zoomed to 100 miles per hour as she tried to get it to stop -- shifting to neutral, trying to throw the car into reverse and hitting the emergency brake. Finally, her car slowed down before she crashed.

She told described her nightmare ride in October 2006, calling it "a near death experience." Fighting back tears, Smith told the panel "I prayed to God to help me."

"After six miles, God intervened" and slowed the car, she said. She said that nothing she had tried had worked. She said it took a long time for Toyota to respond to her complaints.

Three congressional panels are investigating Toyota's problems. The hearings are important because Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles worldwide -- more than 6 million in the United States -- since last fall because of sudden acceleration problems in multiple models and braking issues in the Prius hybrid. It is also investigating steering concerns in Corollas. People with Toyotas have complained of their vehicles speeding out of control in their efforts to slow down, sometimes resulting in deadly crashes. The government has received complaints of 34 deaths linked to sudden acceleration of Toyota vehicles since 2000.

"We are confident that no problems exist with the electric throttle control system in our vehicles," Lentz said in prepared testimony to the House Energy and Commerce's investigative subcommittee. Lentz cited "fail-safe mechanisms" in the cars were designed to shut off or reduce engine power "in the event of a system failure."

But Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the full Energy and Commerce Committee, scoffed at Toyota's insistence that electronics were not a possible cause and said the company should have investigated more thoroughly. Waxman also took the government to task for not doing enough. "Toyota failed its customers and the government neglected its responsibilities," he said.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the panel in his prepared testimony that possible electronics problems were not being dismissed and were being investigated by his agency.

"We will continue to investigate all possible causes of unintended acceleration," LaHood said. He said that the millions of recalls by Toyota were important steps but "we don't maintain that they answer every question" about causes of sudden acceleration.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the subcommittee, said Toyota "all but ignored pleas from consumers to examine sudden unintended acceleration events," he said. "They boast in a briefing of saving Toyota $100 million by negotiating a limited recall. They claim that they first became aware of sticking pedals in late October of 2009 when in fact they had received numerous complaints many months and years earlier."

"They misled the American public," Stupak added, "by saying that they and other independent sources had thoroughly analyzed the electronics systems and eliminated electronics as a possible cause of sudden unintended acceleration when, in fact, the only such review was a flawed study conducted by a company retained by Toyota's lawyers."

But Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton cautioned his colleagues against conducting a "witch hunt."

"We don't want to just assume automatically that Toyota has done something wrong and has tried to cover it up," Barton said.

Lentz, speaking with reporters on his way into the hearing room, said safety was Toyota's top priority "and we are committed to a great relationship with both Congress and our regulators."

In his written testimony, he apologized for the company's slow handling of problems. "We have not lived up to the high standards our customers and the public have come to expect from Toyota," Lentz said.

"Put simply, it has taken us too long to come to grips with a rare but serious set of safety issues, despite all of our good faith efforts," said Lentz, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

"After six miles, God intervened" and slowed the car, she said. She said that nothing she had tried had worked. She said it took a long time for Toyota to respond to her complaints.

Toyota dealers are charging that the besieged automaker is being treated unfairly by the U.S. government. And some questioned the government's impartiality, given its billion-dollar investment in two competitors. The U.S. owns a majority stake in General Motors after bailing out the company last year. It also owns a smaller portion of Chrysler.

Associated Press reporters Alan Fram, Stephen Manning and Tom Raum contributed to this story from Washington.

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