| -

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the latest chapter of the automaker's recall-related challenges, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is now investigating how Toyota handled a steering relay rod recall back in the mid-2000s.

Basically, NHTSA is seeking to find out if Toyota Motor Corp. brought the matter to the attention of proper authorities within the mandatory five-business-day time window after discovering a steering relay rod safety defect roughly six years ago.

Toyota recalled Hilux truck models in Japan during 2004 that had steering relay rods "prone to fatiguing, cracking and breaking." This defect could possibly lead to a loss of steering control, officials noted.

Toyota had apparently told the agency in 2004 that Japan was the only area where this issue occurred, and that there was no information suggesting that the problem existed in the U.S.

The next year, though, Toyota reported to the agency that problems were found in America, too, as several models that it sold in the U.S. were experiencing the steering relay rod issue. Toyota conducted a recall in 2005 to fix the problem.

NHTSA said it found out Friday that consumers in the U.S. had apparently reported "a number of complaints" with Toyota before the automaker had recalled the Hilux models in 2004. So, that prompted NHTSA to conduct its current investigation.

"Safety is our number one priority, and we take our responsibility to protect U.S. consumers seriously," stated U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "With new assurances from Toyota about their efforts to improve safety, I hope for their cooperation in getting to the bottom of what happened."

NHTSA Administrator David Strickland added: "NHTSA has taken swift action since first receiving copies of these complaints on Friday. Our team is now 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 U.S. vehicles."

Responding to the NHTSA's investigation, Toyota said in a statement this week: "Toyota has received and is reviewing the information request from NHTSA and will cooperate with the agency's investigation."