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Toyota probe asks if recall big enough

WASHINGTON – Congressional investigators are escalating their probe of Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles by examining whether sudden acceleration afflicts models that have not been recalled – and whether all Toyota vehicles should be modified so that their brakes override out-of-control throttles.

The increased scrutiny comes as regulators in Japan and the U.S. have launched inquiries into reports that brakes on the company’s Prius hybrid are slow to respond. A Prius controversy would be particularly thorny for Toyota, which has used the hybrid to hone its image as a maker of environmentally friendly and technologically advanced autos.

“The Prius is their poster child for corporate responsibility,” said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of auto research firm Edmunds Inc.

Toyota’s stock plunged after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in a congressional hearing, appeared to warn owners not to drive recalled vehicles. LaHood later said he misspoke, meaning instead to caution people to avoid operating vehicles that have exhibited a rough or sticky gas pedal and recommended that owners get their cars fixed quickly.

The chairman of a congressional committee that plans a hearing on the recall next week sent a letter to Toyota on Wednesday asking whether it was safe to drive recalled models and whether the sudden acceleration problems affect other Toyota vehicles.

Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked about similar problems in the Toyota Tacoma truck. He said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received more than 100 complaints about sudden acceleration in the Tacoma, which does not have the same accelerator pedal assembly as the recalled models.

Toyota said last year that it will install a brake override in vehicles it has recalled to prevent the risk of floor mats entrapping the gas pedal; Towns asked whether Toyota was considering installing override on all its vehicles.

Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., asked Toyota why the automaker’s recall announcements came “at least two years” after it had learned of sudden acceleration problems.

LaHood said that the NHTSA “will continue to hold Toyota’s feet to the fire to make sure that they are doing everything they have promised to make their vehicles safe. We will continue to investigate all possible causes of these safety issues.”

LaHood said he intended to speak with Toyota President Akio Toyoda “very soon” to make sure the company gets the message from the U.S. government that the company needs to take aggressive action to resolve the sudden acceleration problems.

“This is serious. This is very serious,” LaHood said. Toyota is doing everything now to correct the problem, he added, “but we’re going to keep the pressure on them.”

Toyota said Wednesday that unless people are experiencing problems, the autos are safe to drive.

“Our message to Toyota owners is this: If you experience any issues with your accelerator pedal, please contact your dealer without delay,” the company said in a statement. “If you are not experiencing any issues with your pedal, we are confident that your vehicle is safe to drive.”

The company began fixing the recalled vehicles Wednesday.