WASHINGTON — After listening to the harrowing story of a Tennessee woman who survived her Lexus; sudden acceleration to 100 miles per hour for six miles on the interstate in 2006, House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Joe Barton, R-Arlington, unexpectedly tore into Toyota Motor Sales USA president Jim Lentz at a hearing Tuesday, calling the company's fix "a sham."
A deadly accident in Southlake, which killed four people in a Toyota Avalon the day after Christmas, is also suspected of being a case of sudden acceleration. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill. brought it up during the hearing, reading from his Blackberry from a victim's brother-in-law who wanted "to put a face" on the controversy.
Initially, Barton seemed skeptical about the intent of the panel's subcommittee on oversight and investigations' probe of Toyota's response to sudden acceleration problems, saying during opening statements, "I don’t believe we should go on a witch hunt."
But Barton was apparently moved by the "compelling testimony" of Rhonda Smith, who spoke of her "near death experience" and said she wanted to speak for deceased victims, as well as herself.
Pulling onto I-40 toward Knoxville, "I lost all control of the acceleration of the vehicle," said Smith, Alone in the car as she tried to brake, put it in neutral and even reverse, she spoke to her husband who was trying to help her on the phone. Barton forcefully asked Lentz why Toyota did not take ownership of the Smith's Lexus, a Toyota product,
"We have a car that had out of control acceleration," said Barton, "Why has Toyota not obtained the vehicle and done everything possible to find the malfunction?"
Barton, an engineer, said that the company needed to find the malfunction instead of relying on Toyota's two current recalls — to adjust the floor mats to prevent them from interfering with the accelerator and to add a metal plate to the accelerator to prevent "sticking."
"They're putting in a fix," said Barton, who Monday visited two Toyota dealers, including Vandergriff Motors of Arlington and was shown the accelerator adjustment. "In my opinion, it's a sham," said Barton.
"You're not solving the problems Mrs. Smith had. Why don't you get that car and tear it apart? I'm an engineer. We define problems. You could probably solve this problem if you really wanted to."
Lentz replied that he was "embarrassed" by the Smiths' story. The couple complained bitterly about how they were called "liars" when they tried to arbitrate their car's problems with Toyota and the auto dealer.
Barton said that he had a GM assembly plant in his district, as well as a Toyota supplier. "I want the truth and whether my constituents want to buy a GM product or a Toyota product, to know that those products are safe."
And then Barton gave a parting shot: "I have confidence in your engineering department if your legal department will let you solve it."
The Southlake accident came in for some attention late in the hearing from Rush and Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, whose district borders the accident site.
Rush, a Chicago congressman, read from an email from Lou Ransom, brother-in-law of Sharon Love Ransom of Grapevine, who perished in the crash. "I offered her up as evidence," said Ransom, the executive editor of the Chicago Defender, a prominent African American newspaper.
The car ran through a Stop sign, reached a speed of 45 mph, and flipped into a pond, drowning the occupants.
Sharon Ransom's family has sued Toyota.