Toyota outrage turns to shrugs

Lawmakers who made a lot of noise last year about alleged deadly malfunctions in Toyota vehicles didn’t have much to say on Wednesday.

A new report unveiled this week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that despite the bipartisan uproar on Capitol Hill in 2010, driver error was the likely the cause of the fatalities that triggered a media frenzy.

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"The jury is back, the verdict is in," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Tuesday during a press conference announcing the findings. "There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas — period."

Democrats on Capitol Hill last year launched a series of hearings and investigations into reports that Toyota electronics were causing vehicles to accelerate against the will of drivers.

"There is no evidence that Toyota has conducted extensive or rigorous testing of its vehicles for potential electronic defects that could cause sudden unintended acceleration," Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), then the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said during a hearing last year on the topic.

The reports — and the congressional hearings that accompanied them — made international headlines and caused Toyota sales to plummet.

NHTSA analysts cited two separate causes of unintended acceleration in Toyotas: the first involved cases where the gas pedal became trapped beneath the floor mat, and the second occurred when a "sticky pedal" was slow to return to the idle position. Toyota acknowledged both problems in a series of recalls in 2009 and 2010 that affected millions of vehicles.

Waxman on Wednesday said he hadn't read the findings, and emphasized the distinction between blaming Toyota electronics for runaway cars and blaming the company for a failure to ensure that could never be the case.

"My criticism was that they didn't consider that as a possibility," Waxman said Wednesday. "It's not for me or anyone in Congress to know what was the cause. We just wanted Toyota to know what the cause was."

The NHTSA report was based on a 10-month study by NASA engineers. Although the scientists "found no evidence that a malfunction in electronics caused large unintended accelerations," lead engineer Michael Kirsch told The Washington Post, such cases were only "unlikely" — not impossible.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a sharp critic of Toyota a year ago, also said she hasn't looked at the new NHTSA report. Told of the findings, the Ohio Democrat said, "I don't believe that. How can it be driver error with so many [cases]?"

Kaptur, a member of the Appropriations subpanel on transportation, said she'll "review the report, and have more to say a little bit later."

Other legislators also said they hadn’t yet read the report.

Last year, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) said, "Toyota is driving down the road to an inquiry by the Justice Department." Like many other members of Congress, Rush didn’t issue a press release on the new NHTSA report.

Toyota earlier this week issued a statement on the report, saying, “We hope this important study will help put to rest unsupported speculation.” On Wednesday, Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said Congress did the right thing by examining the issue with public hearings.

"We don't feel it's vindication," Lyons said. "We feel that was a necessary part of the process."