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Insurer ‘warned of Toyota fault’

America’s largest car insurer has said it alerted federal safety regulators about a rise in reports of unexpected acceleration in Toyota vehicles, three years before the company withdrew thousands of cars worldwide.

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State Farm insurance said it warned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in late 2007. NHTSA officials said the report was reviewed and the agency issued a recall later that month.

NHTSA received complaints about acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles as early as 2003, and congressional investigators are looking into whether the government missed warning signs of the problems. A House committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on Wednesday into the Japanese carmaker’s recall of about 8.5 million vehicles globally over floor mats which can trap gas pedals, sticking gas pedals and brake problems.

Toyota announced early Tuesday it would recall about 437,000 Prius and other hybrid vehicles to fix brake problems. There have been about 200 complaints in Japan and the US about a delay when the brakes in the Prius were pressed in cold conditions and on some bumpy roads.

The US government has launched an investigation into the Prius. In a statement, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Toyota has acknowledged a safety defect by issuing the Prius recall, which includes 133,000 Prius cars and 14,500 Lexus HS250h vehicles in the United States.

LaHood said Toyota leaders had assured him they were taking the safety concerns “very seriously” and the transportation agency will “remain in constant communication with Toyota to hold them to that promise.” US owners will start receiving letters about the recall next week.

State Farm, meanwhile, said it routinely tracks claim trend information and shares its data with NHTSA. “In the name of safety, we voluntarily and routinely communicate with the appropriate government agencies when we see a product-related claim trend,” said spokesman Jeff McCollum in an email.

NHTSA spokeswoman Karen Aldana said State Farm forwarded the agency a Sept 7, 2007, claim letter to Toyota concerning a crash involving a 2005 Camry. She said the report was reviewed and added to their complaint database.

The agency had been investigating problems with floor mats in Toyota vehicles and later in September 2007, Toyota recalled 55,000 Camry and ES350 vehicles to replace the floor mats.

Toyota officials have apologised for the recalls and vowed to fix customer vehicles. Akio Toyoda, the company’s president and grandson of its founder, wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post on Tuesday that Toyota “has not lived up to the high standards you have come to expect of us” and called the recent spate of problems “the most serious” the company has ever faced.

“We fully understand that we need to more aggressively investigate complaints we hear directly from consumers and move more quickly to address any safety issues we identify,” Toyoda wrote.