Toyota Motor Corp. Monday agreed to pay a $16.4 million fine handed down by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Admin., which was proposed April 5 after the U.S. safety agency found the auto maker waited five months to report to U.S. officials that some of its accelerator pedals could stick.

Toyota issued a U.S. recall of vehicles with the pedals in January, after disclosing the issue to European safety officials in September, NHTSA says.

“Toyota denies NHTSA’s allegation that it violated the Safety Act or its implementing regulations,” the auto maker says in a statement.

“We believe we made a good faith effort to investigate this condition and develop an appropriate counter-measure. We have acknowledged that we could have done a better job of sharing relevant information within our global operations and outside the company, but we did not try to hide a defect to avoid dealing with a safety problem.”

Toyota says it is agreeing to pay the fine “to avoid a protracted dispute and possible litigation, as well as allow us to move forward fully focused on the steps to strengthen our quality assurance operations.”

Toyota also reiterates the efforts it has undertaken in recent months to strengthen its quality-assurance operations, including improving communications by appointing regional chief quality officers and outside quality experts.

But blaming its failure to notify U.S. officials sooner of the sticky pedal problem on poor communications doesn’t hold water with David Wright, a partner in the Redlands, CA, law-firm McCune and Wright, which filed the first U.S. class-action lawsuit regarding unintended acceleration against Toyota last November.

Wright says the U.S. Toyota subsidiary’s failure to act sooner on the European recall is “just one aspect of a much larger cover-up.”

As far back as three years ago, State Farm Insurance was calling Toyota’s attention to issues of unintended acceleration, he says, adding NHTSA also had been investigating unintended acceleration issues for years, but Toyota’s lawyers, some former NHTSA staff, “thwarted” any attempt to obtain Toyota documents.

Wright believes Toyota’s fine will be “relevant” in numerous civil lawsuits against the auto maker. “It certainly is relevant to establishing Toyota’s conduct, specifically to Toyota hiding this dire safety problem from consumers.”

McCune and Wright maintains the “vast majority” of unintended acceleration issues reported with Toyota vehicles relate not to sticky pedals or ill-fitting floor mats, but to the auto maker’s electronic throttle control system.

Toyota has said its ETC systems are not the cause of unintended acceleration but has hired an outside engineering firm to continue to investigate the matter.

NHTSA also has secured the help of engineers from NASA to look into the possibility of electromagnetic interference as the source of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles. The auto maker will be back in Washington May 6 to update Congress on its investigation and handling of matters of unintended acceleration.

Clarence Ditlow, director of the U.S. Center for Auto Safety, expresses disappointment Toyota’s fine is “so small” and hopes future levies against auto makers that don’t immediately report safety problems be uncapped.

“What the fines do is they demonstrate the inadequacy of the safety law,” he says.

Ditlow expects NHTSA to issue another $16.4 million fine, the maximum amount allowed, against Toyota for its failure to quickly report problems with floor mats that could become entrapped by accelerator pedals.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com