U.S. government investigations into issues of unintended acceleration with Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles have been inadequate, Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, tells members of the U.S. Senate.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. “narrowed down” prior investigations into complaints of unintended acceleration in Toyota models by limiting investigations only to longer durations of unintended acceleration, Ditlow says today at a Senate Commerce hearing.

Ditlow also questions why there have been twice as many fatal crashes in non-recalled ’02-’06 model Toyota Camrys than the ’07-’10 Camrys now being recalled for issues concerning ill-fitting floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals.

“If you can’t answer questions like that, you haven’t done your job,” Ditlow says of NHTSA.

Just prior to Ditlow’s testimony, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and NHTSA chief David Strickland defende themselves and their agencies’ actions before and during the recent Toyota recalls.

LaHood, who testified at U.S. House hearings last week, once again denies NHTSA has too cozy a relationship with auto makers.

He recommends there be a set period of time former NHTSA employees must wait before taking a job at an auto maker, saying two years or longer should be a standard.

It has been revealed that a former NHTSA investigator took a job at Toyota’s Washington office shortly after leaving the regulatory agency. However, LaHood says there appears to be nothing illegal about the situation.

Strickland, who did not appear during last week’s hearings, says a Toyota internal document revealing the auto maker was able to negotiate with NHTSA to lessen the cost impact of a recall involving floor mats in 2007 has “absolutely no foundation. It’s like me claiming I was responsible for the sun rising this morning.”

LaHood repeats his statement last week that although prior investigations found no electronic defect with Toyota or Lexus models, NHTSA still will do a complete review of the matter, to determine whether Toyota’s electronic throttle control system may be to blame for unintended acceleration incidents.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, who has a Toyota engine plant in his state, insists NHTSA’s early investigations into unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles have “failed” because they did not prevent numerous deaths that have occurred allegedly relating to the issue.

Rockefeller says documents show NHTSA has been reluctant to investigate electronic issues, because he suspects the agency understands floor mats better than microchips.

“If NHTSA turned a blind eye on it because they didn’t understand chips or the electronics – I know this, we’re going to get to the bottom of the electronics,” LaHood shoots back.

Strickland defends NHTSA’s ability to diagnose electronic issues, saying the department has five electrical engineers of 125 engineers total on staff. He notes another electrical engineer works at NHTSA’s East Liberty, OH, test facility and NHTSA will hire an additional expert there soon.

Asked by the committee if they have enough staff, both LaHood and Strickland mention the Obama Admin.’s plan to add 66 more positions.

Strickland says he will make sure the positions added are in crucial areas such as defect investigations.

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-NE, says he is concerned with how the Japanese react to U.S. quality issues.

As a former Secretary of Agriculture, Johanns encountered the Japanese shutting out U.S. beef from its borders.

“(What if we said) we’re not just going to accept any vehicles from Japan?” he asks.

LaHood says Johanns’ point is “one we should be making when it comes to automobiles,” and he will bring it up in future meetings with Japanese government officials.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com