• The Associated Press


Three Toyota officials are under criminal investigation on suspicion of professional negligence for allegedly not issuing vehicle recalls for eight years and not fixing a defect that might have caused an accident, police said Tuesday.

Toyota Motor Corp. said the officials did not do anything wrong. The automaker said in a statement it was cooperating fully with the investigation.

The Kumamoto Prefectural Police turned their case over to prosecutors on Tuesday, a police spokesman said. The three Toyota officials, ages 62, 58 and 55, oversee quality control, the spokesman said. Their names were not disclosed.

Toyota said at least one of the officials had left the company, although reasons for the departure were unclear.

Five people were injured Aug. 12, 2004, in a head-on collision in Kumamoto when the steering failed in a Toyota Hilux Surf sport utility vehicle. The driver lost control and the vehicle veered into oncoming traffic.

One person in the other vehicle suffered injuries requiring 52 days of medical treatment and four suffered minor injuries, police said.

Toyota said a recall was issued in October 2004 for 330,000 Hilux Surf vehicles manufactured between December 1988 and May 1996. The recall was for a part that could break in the steering system. The carmaker said the vehicle in the Kumamoto accident was manufactured in 1993.

Toyota had received five reports of problems with the steering wheel by 1996, but the problems were limited to complaints about the steering when parking, and no recall was made at the time, it said.

After other problems were reported in 2004, Toyota investigated and decided to issue a recall.

About 1.2 million of the model were sold in 180 nations abroad, including in the U.S. and Europe.

Those vehicles were recalled in September 2005, according to Toyota. Eighteen problems were reported overseas, but there were no accidents or injuries, it said.

A Toyota official, speaking on condition of anonymity, quoted police as saying that reports of problems began in 1992 and company officials are accused of being aware of them as early as 1995 or 1996.

The automaker, based in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, said it will continue to make quality a priority.

“We will continue to strengthen quality control under our belief that we must put the customer first and make quality No. 1,” it said in the statement.

Toyota has had booming sales in recent years and is growing so rapidly some analysts expect it to overtake struggling General Motors Corp. of the U.S. as the world’s biggest automaker in coming years.

However, Toyota, known worldwide for impeccable quality, has suffered a bit of an image problem lately with a soaring number of recalls. It is raising doubts about whether the automaker can continue to maintain its quality standards as it embarks on the next step of global expansion.

A massive scandal involving recall coverups has taken a huge toll on Mitsubishi Motors Corp., which has booked its third straight year of losses for fiscal 2005.

MMC acknowledged in 2000 it had been systematically hiding auto defects from authorities for more than two decades.

The automaker has announced a spate of recalls since then and disclosed in 2004 it had failed to come clean in 2000 and had more concealed defects, some of which have been linked to fatal accidents.

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