House Committee Wants to Know ‘Whether It Safe’ to Drive Toyotas

By Ken Thomas | February 18, 2010 | 12:34 PM EST
Washington (AP) - A congressional committee investigating Toyota's massive recalls on Thursday asked the company's president, Akio Toyoda, to testify at its hearing, citing questions from the American public on "whether it is safe to drive their cars."
Toyoda, the grandson of the Japanese automaker's founder, has said he does not plan to attend a series of hearings in Congress scheduled to begin next week. But he told reporters in Japan on Wednesday that he would consider appearing before Congress if invited.
Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote Thursday that the committee wanted Toyoda to "clarify" how the company is addressing the recall crisis, which has grown over the past four months to 8.5 million vehicles globally with problems with gas pedals, floor mats and brakes.
"The public is unsure as to what exactly the problem is, whether it is safe to drive their cars, or what they should do about it," Towns wrote in a letter to Toyoda.
Toyota, the world's No. 1 automaker, did not immediately comment on the invitation, which is rarely rejected by those asked to appear. The committee's top Republican, Darrell Issa of California, has urged Toyoda to meet with lawmakers and has said that if necessary, the committee should compel the executive's testimony by subpoena.
In Japan and in the United States, Toyota Motor Corp. has been criticized for being too slow to respond to the recall crisis and the company's top executive has been accused of being largely invisible as the recalls escalated. But he has held three news conferences in recent weeks, apologized repeatedly for the recalls and promised reforms.
Toyota has said it will create an outside review of company operations, do a better job of responding to customer complaints and improve communication with federal officials. Toyoda has said he plans to travel to the U.S. soon to meet with workers and dealers but the company has not yet released his schedule.
Toyoda's appearance before Congress would raise the profile of the Feb. 24 Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. Yoshimi Inaba, chairman and chief executive of Toyota Motor North America, already is scheduled to appear at the session, along with top U.S. transportation officials.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee moved its scheduled hearing up to Feb. 23, one day ahead of the Oversight Committee meeting. The energy panel has invited Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, and David Strickland, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to testify. A Senate hearing is planned for March 2.
The auto executives will face scrutiny in the U.S., where the Transportation Department has demanded documents related to its recalls. The department wants to know how long the automaker knew of safety defects before taking action.
Reports of deaths in the U.S. connected to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles have surged in recent weeks, with the toll of deaths allegedly attributed to the problem reaching 34 since 2000, according to new consumer data gathered by the U.S. government.
House committee asks Toyota president to testify