WASHINGTON -- Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Toyota was slow to deal with safety problems with its gas pedals, asserting in an interview Tuesday that it took government pressure to force the company to recall millions of its most popular vehicles.
LaHood, in an interview with The Associated Press, defended his department's handling of the Toyota investigation and said the Japanese automaker was "a little safety deaf" during its probe of the problem. The company was so resistant, LaHood said, that it took a trip from federal safety officials to Japan to "wake them up" to the seriousness of the pedal problems.
"They should have taken it seriously from the very beginning when we first started discussing it with them," LaHood told AP. "Maybe they were a little safety deaf in their North American office until we went to Japan."
"If it had not been for the work of (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) pushing Toyota to make the recall, traveling to Japan, meeting with the top officials of Toyota in Japan and telling them that their folks in the United States seem to be a little safety deaf when it came to us talking to them, I don't know if the recall would be taking place," LaHood said.
LaHood's remarks were his most pointed since Toyota recalled 2.3 million vehicles in the United States due to concerns over gas pedals that can stick when drivers step on the gas. The Jan. 21 recall followed a separate action in October to recall millions more over problems with pedals catching on floor mats.
Toyota has said it first received a complaint of sticking gas pedals back in 2007 but determined its cars were not at fault, reports CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds.
Former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook said Toyota has long been resistant to regulation.
"I think Toyota has been recalcitrant and very secretive and it does not like to recall vehicles and I think it did everything it could to delay this issue," Claybrook told Reynolds.
"The first line of defense is 'The consumer was wrong, they stepped on the accelerator instead of the brake. It's their fault,'" Claybrook said.