Toyota waited nearly a year to recall US trucks and SUVs with defective steering rods, despite issuing a similar alert in Japan and receiving dozens of reports from American motorists about rods that snapped without warning, it has emerged.
The lengthy gap between the Japanese and US recalls in 2005 - strikingly similar to Toyota's handling of the recent recall for sudden acceleration problems - triggered a new investigation by America's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which could fine the embattled car giant up to 16.4 million US dollars (£11m) - also the amount Toyota paid last month in the acceleration case.
"Our team is working to obtain documents and information from Toyota to find out whether the manufacturer notified NHTSA within five business days of discovering a safety defect in US vehicles," NHTSA administrator David Strickland said.
A manufacturer must notify the NHTSA about a defect within five days of determining one exists.
US government regulators "are taking this seriously and reviewing the facts to determine whether a timeliness investigation is warranted", NHTSA spokeswoman Karen Aldana said in response to questions about the 2005 recall.
The NHTSA has now linked 16 crashes, three deaths and seven injuries to the steering rod defect. When a steering rod snaps, the driver cannot control the vehicle because the front wheels will not turn.
According to hundreds of pages of court documents, government files and complaints from drivers seen by The Associated Press news agency, Toyota initially said after the 2004 Japanese recall that it had scant evidence of a steering rod problem among US trucks and SUVs.
But it emerged that the car maker had received at least 52 reports from US drivers about the defect before vehicles were recalled in Japan.
Toyota said it has now confirmed seven total cases in the US of steering problems in the T100 small pick-up and no reports of accidents or injuries.
Company spokesman Brian Lyons said the company had received an information request from the NHTSA and would co-operate with the agency's inquiry.