Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Sunday his department was aware some Toyota vehicles had "unintended acceleration" issues in late 2003, three years before it launched a preliminary probe into sticky Toyota floor mats.
LaHood's remarks on his blogsite followed a disclosure by America's top automobile insurer, State Farm, that it reported Toyota acceleration problems to the Department of Transportation (DoT) in February 2004.
Toyota has recalled nearly nine million vehicles worldwide following a series of complaints and a slew of lawsuits linking vehicle flaws to 30 deaths across the United States.
Toyota president Akio Toyoda is expected to face a grilling by a congressional committee Wednesday that could also criticize DoT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) allegedly slow response to the complaints.
LaHood warned much of what had been written about the NHTSA's response to State Farm's report was "factually incorrect or incomplete."
"Today?s Detroit News has it right, however," he said, referring to the Michigan daily's story about an NHTSA probe of Toyota acceleration complaints in December 2003, "before State Farm supplied any information on that topic to the safety agency in February of 2004."
Up to now, the DoT and NHTSA had said that in March 2007 they launched a preliminary probe into complaints about acceleration pedals sticking to floor mats on some Toyota models, without indicating if they had looked into such problems earlier.
"While insurance data is a useful source of supplemental information in identifying auto defect trends," LaHood said in his blog, "the primary sources are consumer complaints, early warning reporting from manufacturers, technical service bulletins provided by manufacturers to car dealers and foreign recalls on vehicles that are similar to vehicles sold in the US.
"What's missing from much of the other coverage I?ve seen is the fact that, over the years, NHTSA officials actually asked State Farm to provide that information so they could incorporate it into their ongoing vehicle defect investigations. As they do information from all sources," he added.
LaHood said in April, 2009, NHTSA requested State Farm's list of claims "alleging unintended acceleration for all vehicle models and model years between 2006 and 2009."
"So, the idea that NHTSA is in the business of ignoring information -- valuable or otherwise -- from automobile insurers, safety organizations, or consumers is just plain wrong," he added.
Republican member of the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee Dan Burton told Fox Television on Sunday that Toyoda's presence at the committee hearing Wednesday, although voluntary, was necessary.
"I don't think we could force him to come, but I think the publicity and the overall impact on Toyota if he doesn't testify would be severe," Burton said.
"He agreed he'd better be there."