Two years after the Channel 4 I-Team first exposed problems with unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles, Congress came down hard Tuesday on the company and the federal agency charged with protecting drivers on the road.
"Toyota failed its customers, and the government neglected its responsibilities," said Rep. Henry Waxman.
A congressional committee criticized Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the deaths and crashes associated with sudden acceleration. The lawmakers raised questions about whether electronic problems within the vehicles are to blame instead of faulty floor mats and sticking brakes.
A Tennessee couple took center stage at that hearing, describing the fear and frustration other drivers told the I-Team about as far back as 2007.
Rhonda Smith of east Tennessee became emotional when describing how her 2007 Lexus accelerated without warning on Interstate 40, racing to more than 100 miles per hour.
"I prayed for God to help me," Smith said.
The Sevierville woman and her husband spoke at a congressional hearing Tuesday. The Smiths testified that both Toyota and NHTSA ignored their concerns.
"Shame on you, Toyota, for being so greedy. And shame on you, NHTSA, for not doing your job," Smith said.
The same NHTSA investigator who inspected the Smiths' Lexus inspected Frank Visconi's 2007 Toyota Tacoma after he said the truck suddenly accelerated and crashed.
The Dover man was among the drivers featured in a nationwide I-Team investigation in 2007 exposing sudden acceleration in the 2007 Toyota Tacoma. The drivers told the I-Team that Toyota made it seem as though the problems were the driver's fault or a floor mat jamming issue.
"It was very clear to me that they were saying that it was driver error," Visconi said.
Subcommittee member and Tennessee U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn didn't want the hearing to become a trial, but lawmakers have blistering criticism of Toyota and NHTSA.
"This is a very, very serious issue involving the loss of lives," said Blackburn.
Toyota's president admitted his company was slow in responding to complaints like the Smiths' and Visconi's.
"Put simply, it's taken us too long to come to grips with a rare but serious set of safety issues," said James Lentz.
U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon said what he heard at the hearing left him with serious doubts.
"After what you heard (Tuesday), do you feel like Toyota really knows what's causing these cases of sudden acceleration?" said I-Team reporter Jeremy Finley.
"They're indicating that they don't," Gordon said. "But if they do know and they're not dealing with it, then we have a very bad problem. So we've got to find out if they know and are not telling us."
Gordon said he believes NHTSA hasn't done a thorough enough investigation into the Toyota Tacoma.
"We've got to find out if NHTSA is up to the challenge of protecting the American people, or if Toyota is concealing information, or they just can't figure it out," he said.
A response from NHTSA to Gordon's recent questions about the Tacoma confirms that as of Monday night, Toyota has included the 2007 Tacoma in its vehicles that should now be retrofitted with a brake override system.
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