PhotoThe National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is throwing the book at Toyota.

The automaker has agreed to pay $17.35 million -- the maximum fine allowable under the law -- in response to the agency's assertion that the automaker failed to report a safety defect to the federal government in a timely manner. It's the single highest civil penalty amount ever paid to NHTSA for violations stemming from a recall.

"Safety is our highest priority," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "With today’s announcement, I expect Toyota to rigorously reinforce its commitment to adhering to United States safety regulations."

Disturbing trend

Earlier this year, NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation began noticing a trend in floor mat pedal entrapment in 2010 Lexus RX 350s in Vehicle Owner Questionnaires (VOQs) and Early Warning Reporting data.

In May, NHTSA contacted Toyota regarding the trend, and a month later Toyota advised NHTSA that it was aware of 63 alleged incidents of possible floor mat pedal entrapment in Model Year 2010 Lexus RX 350s since 2009. Toyota's own technicians and dealer technicians reported that certain alleged incidents of unwanted acceleration had been caused by floor mat pedal entrapment.

In June, Toyota advised NHTSA that it would conduct a recall of 154,036 Model Year 2010 Lexus RX 350 and Model Year 2010 RX 450h vehicles to address floor mat pedal entrapment.

Federal law requires all auto manufacturers to notify NHTSA within five business days of determining that a safety defect exists or that the vehicle is not in compliance with federal motor vehicle safety standards and to promptly conduct a recall.

"It's critical to the safety of the driving public that manufacturers report safety defects in a timely manner," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "Every moment of delay has the potential to lead to deaths or injuries on our nation’s highways."

Review of safety procedures

As part of today's settlement, Toyota and its U.S. based subsidiaries agreed to make internal changes to their quality assurance and review of safety-related issues in the United States, and to improve their ability to take into account the possible consequences of potential safety-related defects.

“Toyota is dedicated to the safety of our customers, and we continue to strengthen our data collection and evaluation process to ensure we are prepared to take swift action to meet customers' needs,” said Ray Tanguay, chief quality officer of Toyota North America. “We agreed to this settlement in order to avoid a time-consuming dispute and to focus fully on our shared commitment with NHTSA to keep drivers safe.”

The last time Toyota faced civil penalties was in 2010 when the automaker agreed to pay $48.8 million as a result of three separate investigations into the automaker's handling of auto recalls. The automaker paid maximum civil penalties for violations stemming from the pedal entrapment, sticky pedal and steering relay rod recalls.

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