U.S. regulators on Tuesday opened an investigation into whether Toyota Motor Corp acted in a timely way to recall cars for acceleration problems, and the automaker moved to slow its U.S. production to avoid a costly ballooning of inventories.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it had requested production data, consumer complaints and other documents expected to shed light on how and when Toyota learned of problems affecting about 6 million vehicles it has recalled in the United States.
The NHTSA review could lay the groundwork for officials to fine Toyota if they determine the manufacturer violated its legal obligations. It also sets the stage for a congressional review of Toyota’s safety crisis set for next week.
Separately, Toyota said that it would shut down production at two of its U.S. assembly plants for a total of at least 11 days as it grapples with slower sales.
The move by U.S. officials to deepen the scrutiny of the world’s largest automaker comes a day after safety regulators said the number of reported fatalities linked to unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles had risen to 34.
Safety advocates have criticized Toyota and NHTSA for not acting more aggressively to investigate a rising number of consumer complaints of unintended acceleration on Toyota vehicles dating back to 2002.
By requesting more information from Toyota now, NHTSA has effectively reversed a decision taken by working-level investigators in 2004 that the automaker was not required to share information it had about reports of unintended acceleration lasting more than a few seconds.
The three recalls being examined for their timeliness by NHTSA involve Toyota and Lexus models. Two of them — in 2007 and 2009 — relate to loose floor mats that can become trapped by the accelerator. The third, announced in January, covers gas pedals that do not spring back as designed.
Toyota’s production shutdowns, which cover its San Antonio, Texas, and Georgetown, Kentucky, plants, represent the second time the automaker has had to cut North American output.
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