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Toyota Officials Once Worked at NHTSA, May Have Influenced Sudden Acceleration Probes

Feb 15, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

Are Toyota  and the the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) too close for comfort?  It's a question many are asking in the wake of recalls for millions of Toyota cars for sudden acceleration and braking problems.

According to a Reuters report published over the weekend, at least two former NHTSA regulators now work at Toyota. What’s more, these individuals may have helped bring to an end four separate NHTSA investigations into Toyota vehicles and unintended acceleration.  Christopher Tinto, vice president of regulatory affairs in Toyota’s Washington office, joined the automaker in 1994, right after leaving the NHTSA. Christopher Santucci – who now works for Tinto – did the same in 2003.

From 2003 to 2009 the NHTSA opened eight investigations of sudden acceleration involving Toyotas. Of those, three resulted in floor mat recalls and five were closed. Tinto and Santucci worked with NHTSA on Toyota’s responses to the consumer complaints, according to court papers and other documents reviewed by Reuters.

According to Reuters, the relationship between Tinto and Santucci and the NHTSA is unique. Spokesmen for General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC and Honda Motor Co. all told Reuters that they have no ex-NHTSA people who deal with the agency on defects.

As of January 2010, Toyota has recalled more than 5 million vehicles in the U.S. for problems with sudden acceleration. Crashes involving Toyota or Lexus vehicles and sudden acceleration have allegedly resulted in 19 deaths between 2004 and 2009.  Many consumer advocates believe the recalls should have happened sooner.   And they're looking for explanations from both Toyota and the NHTSA.

Hopefully those explanations will come soon. According to Reuters, three congressional committees – House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee – have hearings on the Toyota recalls scheduled in the next few weeks. Officials from Toyota and the NHTSA have been asked to testify at all of them.

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