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by Tim Beissmann

Toyota Motor Corporation has agreed to pay a record US$1.2 billion ($1.3 billion) to settle a criminal investigation after it admitted to misleading American motorists about two unintended acceleration issues affecting its vehicles.

The settlement with the US Department of Justice concludes a four-year investigation by US authorities into Toyota’s conduct in relation to the safety of its cars.

The issue first came to light in 2007 when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an inquiry into the Lexus ES350 (pictured below) following reports of unintended acceleration from owners.

It gained widespread attention two years later when a family of four was killed in an ES350 that a dealer had fitted with an unsecured, incompatible rubber floor mat that entrapped the accelerator pedal at full throttle.

The chilling 911 emergency call made from the out-of-control vehicle that was travelling at over 160km/h was included as part of a ‘statement of facts’ document released with the settlement announcement.

“We’re in a Lexus … and we’re going north on 125 and our accelerator is stuck … there’s no brakes … we’re approaching the intersection… Hold on. Hold on and pray … pray.” The call ended with the sound of the crash that killed everyone in the vehicle.

2007-lexus-es350

Toyota recalled millions of vehicles in 2009 following the crash, but admits it misled motorists by failing to recall all models susceptible to the problem. It also withheld information about the sticking accelerator pedal defect that posed an unintended acceleration threat in millions of other vehicles.

The statement of facts document quotes a Toyota employee who, during a January 2010 meeting between the car maker and its safety regulator, was said to exclaim: “Idiots! Someone will go to jail if lies are repeatedly told. I can’t support this.”

Toyota recalled more than 10 million vehicles globally in 2009 and 2010 relating to unintended acceleration, making modifications to throttle pedals and floor mats and installing brake override software in recalled cars and all new models.

Reuters reports Toyota still faces hundreds of private lawsuits over the issues, and is currently negotiating with hundreds more owners who claim to have been injured as a result of the defects.

US Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters he hoped the settlement would serve as a model to approach future cases involving companies in similar situations, though declined to speak directly about General Motors, which is currently under fire for its slow response to an ignition switch defect that has been linked to the deaths of 12 people.

“Other car companies should not repeat Toyota’s mistake,” Holder said. “A recall may damage a company’s reputation, but deceiving your customers makes that damage far more lasting.”

In a statement, Toyota’s North American legal chief, Christopher Reynolds, said: “Entering this agreement, while difficult, is a major step toward putting this unfortunate chapter behind us”.




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