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US Lawmakers Chastise Toyota Over Recalls

Outraged U.S. lawmakers are questioning top Toyota executives about the recall of more than eight million vehicles over concerns the cars could accelerate suddenly, putting drivers and passengers in danger. Some even accuse the Japanese auto giant of ignoring the pleas of its customers to investigate problems with runaway cars.

Lawmakers wasted no time, immediately criticizing Toyota for its slow response to fears its vehicles could accelerate rapidly and without warning. Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak told the House Energy and Commerce Committee his findings are troubling. "Toyota all but ignored pleas from consumers to examine sudden, unintended acceleration events. They boast in a briefing of saving Toyota $100 million by negotiating a limited recall," he said.

Lawmakers also accuse Toyota of being aware of the problems years earlier.

One Toyota owner - Rhonda Smith - says she and her husband tried to warn Toyota in October 2006, after her Toyota-made Lexus sedan sped up to 160 kilometers  an hour despite her efforts to stop it. "I figured the car was going to go at maximum speed and I was going to have to put the car into the upcoming guard rail to keep from killing anyone else. And I prayed to God to help me," she said

Then she called her husband. " I knew he could not help me but I wanted to hear his voice one more time," she said.

Then, just as suddenly as it sped up, she says the car slowed down. Smith and her husband say when they later complained to Toyota, they were called liars.

James Lentz, the head of Toyota's U.S.-based sales division says he is sorry for Toyota's initial response but the car company did its best to fix the problem, focusing on floor mats and a sticky acceleration pedal. "Nothing matters more to Toyota than the safety and reliability of the vehicles our customers drive. We are committed not only to fixing vehicles on the road and ensuring they are safe, but to making our new vehicles better and even more reliable through strict quality control, enhanced communication and a redoubled focus on putting our customers first," she said.

But David Gilbert, an associate professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University, says it took him less than four hours to determine the problem is with the electronic system and the computer that helps control the car. "If the circuit is defective, as far as the computer is concerned, it must be good," he said.

Some lawmakers have challenged the witness testimony but there will likely be more tough questions for Toyota Wednesday, when the company's president, Akio Toyoda, is due to testify before another house committee.

In written testimony released in advance, Toyoda tells lawmakers his name is on every car, and that they have his "personal commitment" that Toyota will work vigorously to restore the trust of its customers.

Jeff Seldin

Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is national security correspondent. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.

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