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U.S. To Probe Prius Brake Problems

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

From the accelerator to the brake, more bad news today for Toyota. The automaker's latest trouble comes from a brake problem on the company's popular hybrid Prius model. The Transportation Department says it has received over 100 complaints from Prius owners and has opened an investigation. This comes on top of the recall of more than five million Toyotas of various models to repair problems with sudden acceleration.

NPR's Brian Naylor has the latest.

BRIAN NAYLOR: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced its formal investigation of 2010 Prius brakes this morning, a day after company officials admitted the problem. It affects only Toyota's latest generation of the iconic hybrid, which went on sale last May. In a statement, NHTSA said it was looking into quote "allegations of momentary loss of braking capability while traveling over an uneven road surface, pothole or bump." The agency says it has received 124 reports from consumers including four reports alleging that crashes occurred. It said investigators have spoken with consumers and conducted pre-investigatory fieldwork. Clarence Ditlow is president of the Center for Auto Safety and a longtime critic of NHTSA. Ditlow is hopeful the agency is getting ahead of this problem.

Mr. CLARENCE DITLOW (President, Center for Auto Safety): Brakes are a little simpler than electronic controls. And so that we're little bit more hopeful that they would do a good job on Prius brakes then what we are on Camry or Lexus sudden acceleration.

NAYLOR: The agency, which was without a permanent administrator under the Obama administration until late last December, has been at pains to show its engagement in the Toyota problems. Ditlow says that's not always been the case. He says NHTSA conducted an investigation in 2007 of sudden acceleration, buying a Lexus ES 350, a model that had been the subject of several complaints, and tested it. But Ditlow says the test were less than conclusive to say the least.

Mr. DITLOW: We've used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the test procedure, the test results, what types of electronic interference were they looking at? And they came back and told us we don't know how we did the test. We don't what we did and we have no data. I was truly floored at that one. But, you know, that's the record.

NAYLOR: In a timeline provided by the agency, NHTSA says it told Toyota a recall of the Lexus model was necessary to correct a problem with floor mats that jammed against the gas pedal. The company recalled the mats in September of that year. Ditlow says the agency doesn't have the resources to do as many investigations as it should, that it lacks a lab and expertise in electronic controls. Allan Kam spent 25 years as an attorney for NHTSA and saw the problems firsthand.

Mr. ALLAN KAM (Attorney, NHTSA): Their budget actually - in inflation-adjusted dollars - actually declined considerably during the time that I was at the agency, whereas their mission expanded in a couple of respects: the nation's fleet of vehicles increased as more vehicles on the road and more items of motor vehicle equipment.

NAYLOR: President Obama has proposed a slight budget increase for NHTSA, enough to hire a half dozen or so additional investigators. Transportation Department officials would not make Secretary LaHood or new NHTSA administrator David Strickland available for an interview. The NHTSA statement said it currently has 40 open defect investigation, three of which involve Toyota. The agency is expected to testify before a congressional panel looking into the safety issues later this month.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.