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Toyota, NHTSA ‘Should Have Been More Diligent’

Toyota says dealers will begin fixing sticky gas pedals on more than two million U.S. vehicles later this week. But safety advocates say the company — and the government — should have addressed the problem earlier.

A brand new Toyota RAV4 is displayed on the Toyota of Marin sales lot January 21, 2010 in San Rafael, California.
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Above: A brand new Toyota RAV4 is displayed on the Toyota of Marin sales lot January 21, 2010 in San Rafael, California.

In the summer of 2005, Jordon Ziprin, a retired lawyer, was backing his Toyota Camry out of his driveway in Phoenix.

He says his foot was on the brake when suddenly, the car accelerated.

"It all happened in a matter of seconds, it's a total loss of control," Ziprin says.

The Camry smashed into a utility box in his neighbor's driveway. Ziprin filed a complaint that year with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He says the agency labeled the case "ambiguous" and declined to investigate further.

Ziprin says Toyota dismissed his concerns with talking points that explained nothing. "Toyota was totally arrogant," he adds.

Unwanted acceleration plagues many car makers. But safety analysts say Toyota has racked up more cases than it's fair share.

David Champion runs Consumer Reports auto test division. He says for the 2008 model year, Toyota had 41 percent of all complaints. But just 16 percent of the market.

"I think there was a lot of information out there even two or three years ago, that there was something not quite right with Toyota and unintended acceleration," Champion says.

But it wasn't until after a crash in San Diego last August, that Toyota took dramatic action.

A family was hurtling down a highway in a runaway Lexus, Toyota's luxury brand. A passenger called for help and said the accelerator was stuck:

Operator: "911 emergency, what are you reporting?"

Passenger: "We're in trouble, there's no break!"

The Lexus crashed, killing all four occupants.

About a month later, Toyota issued a recall for nearly four million vehicles. The company was worried floor mats might get stuck on accelerators.

Then, in late January, Toyota issued another recall. This time for more than two million vehicles. Toyota was worried they might have gas pedals that mechanically stick.

David Champion of Consumer Reports says the car company and the government should have acted sooner.

"I think both Toyota and NHTSA should have been more diligent in looking at the complaints on their data base," Champion says. It's just shame that it took what happened in San Diego to draw attention to a problem like this."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration denies it dropped the ball. The agency says safety is its top priority. And that it reads every complaint within one business day of arrival.

Jim Lentz, who runs Toyota in the U.S., held a conference call Monday and was asked 'Do you think Toyota dealt with this problem, promptly?"

"I think we did," Lentz answered. "If you look at the whole issue of unintended acceleration. It's really a very very broad issue. We've been investigating it for a long period of time. It's very complex, it's very rare and it's very intermittent."

Lentz says figuring out why a car suddenly accelerates is not as easy as you might think. Take the pedal problem: The company eventually determined accelerators were sticking because of moisture and wear.

But Lentz said testing cars where that happened was difficult. "By the time that vehicle arrived at the dealership, the moisture had evaporated and the pedal was no longer having this sticky situation."

Lentz says he thinks Toyota has solved the acceleration problem with its recalls, but not everyone is convinced.

Jordon Ziprin says when his car went out of control, the pedal didn't stick. Nor did it get trapped in a floor mat.

"I don't expect this problem is going to go away," Ziprin adds.

Sean Kane is founder of Safety Research and Strategies, an advocacy group that has studied the Toyota situation closely. Kane thinks some other electronic problem with Toyota vehicles also is causing unintended acceleration.

However, he acknowledges he can't quite put his finger on it. "We will continue to see incidents occur and I anticipate that we'll see additional recalls as the year progresses," Kane says.

Toyota says parts to fix sticky accelerators are on their way to dealers. The company says some will stay open all night to meet customers needs.

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