Toyota delayed Venza recall in U.S. for six weeks, records show


Toyota Motor Corp. recalled its Venza in Canada late last year because of floor mats that could entrap the gas pedal, but it did not launch a similar recall in the U.S. until six weeks later, records show.

The delay has caught the attention of federal regulators, who last week fined Toyota a record $16.4 million for failing to promptly recall 2.3 million vehicles to correct problems that could lead to sudden acceleration.

Under U.S. law, automakers have five business days to notify the government after finding a potential defect -- a regulation that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has indicated it will strictly enforce.

“NHTSA continues to investigate the timeliness of Toyota’s pedal entrapment recall,” the agency said in a statement to The Times. “We will continue to hold Toyota accountable for violations we find.”

NHTSA is conducting a broad review of Toyota’s response to sudden acceleration problems in its vehicles and the timeliness of related recalls. In addition to the Venza, the agency is also examining Toyota’s choice not to include the Corolla, Highlander and Matrix in the safety campaign until late January.

Toyota recalled the Venza in Canada in December, telling U.S. regulators Dec. 16 that the all-weather floor mats “could move forward during the vehicle usage” and “may interfere with the accelerator pedal.”

By law, automakers must inform NHTSA of any foreign recalls involving models similar to those sold in the U.S. Toyota, however, said it was not recalling U.S. models because the “all-weather floor mats are not imported to the U.S.”

Then on Jan. 27, Toyota reversed itself and told NHTSA that it would in fact recall the Venza here, adding it -- along with the Corolla, Highlander and Matrix -- to its ongoing campaign to address floor-mat entrapment.

In a statement to The Times, Toyota said that the Canadian mat “is different” from the one used in the U.S., although it did not indicate what the differences were. The automaker said it determined in January that the U.S. floor mat could also become entrapped, and it then launched a recall here.

In its Dec. 16 report to NHTSA, Toyota said the Canadian mats were made by Remington Industries of Ooltewah, Tenn. That firm did not return calls for comment. Toyota declined to identify the manufacturer of the mats used in U.S. models.

Filings with safety regulators indicate that the actions taken by Toyota to remedy the potential problem were nearly identical in both countries.

Under the U.S. recall involving floor mats and pedal entrapment, Toyota is replacing mats, reshaping pedals, removing floor padding and installing brake override software to prevent sudden acceleration in the 5.4 million affected vehicles.

According to documents filed with Transport Canada, that country’s auto safety regulator, Toyota “dealers will modify the accelerator pedal to address the risk of floor mat entrapment. Brake override feature will be added.”

The Canadian filing, posted Dec. 17, indicates that 10,000 Venzas in that country are affected. Toyota has not said how many Venzas are affected by the U.S. recall, but last year it sold 54,410 Venzas here, according to Autodata Corp.

As Toyota has struggled through its massive recalls, the automaker has been criticized for not taking a more methodical and coordinated approach to correcting its vehicle defects.

In a letter to Toyota last week, NHTSA took the Japanese automaker to task for failing to promptly recall 2.3 million vehicles for almost four months after determining their accelerator pedals could stick and cause unwanted acceleration.

The letter indicates that Toyota notified dealers in Europe of the problem and a potential remedy on Sept. 29, but shortly thereafter it decided not to implement the fix in the U.S. It did not notify NHTSA of the full extent of the issue until mid-January.

“The result of these decisions was to expose millions of American drivers, passengers and pedestrians to the dangers of driving with a defective accelerator pedal,” the letter said.

Toyota has until Monday to respond to NHTSA’s April 5 demand that it pay the maximum allowable civil penalty for delaying the sticking-pedal recall.

Federal law provides for a $6,000 fine for each violation of safety regulations, and in the case of a delayed recall, each vehicle counts as one violation. The total is capped at $16.375 million, but if it were not, NHTSA wrote last week, Toyota could be liable for $13.8 billion in fines.

The amended floor-mat recall announced Jan. 27 encompassed an additional 1.1 million vehicles. Industry observers say NHTSA, which is itself under a spotlight for its oversight of Toyota, is unlikely to go easy on any automaker that it determines has violated the law.

“It’s such a high-profile matter that the agency is going to try to stick to its guns on demanding full penalties,” said Allan Kam, a former senior enforcement attorney at NHTSA who now runs a consulting firm.