Emotional Testimony Paints Bad Picture for Toyota

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Three separate congressional committees are investigating Toyota's recent troubles with vehicles speeding out of control.

Day one of the Capitol Hill probe opened with emotional testimony and set up even more questions.

Rhonda Smith was driving her Lexus onto the Interstate in 2006 when her accelerator began to stick, and her vehicle sped to more than 100 miles per hour.

"I placed both feet on the brakes after I firmly engaged the emergency brake and nothing slowed the car," she recalled.

Smith said she prayed and called her husband on the vehicle's handsfree device.

"I knew he could not help me, but I wanted to hear his voice one more time," she shared tearfully.

Smith was finally able to stop unharmed. However, the government has received complaints of 34 deaths linked to similar cases of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

Now, the company is facing tough questions from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

"What we have found is quite troubling," Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak said. "Toyota all but ignored pleas from consumers to examine sudden acceleration events."

Toyota has recalled more than 6 million vehicles in the U.S. for acceleration problems in multiple models.

The president of U.S. operations maintains the sticky pedal problem has nothing to do with the vehicle's electrical systems. Yet, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the electrical system can't be ruled out. Some lawmakers argue Rhonda Smith's story doesn't match Toyota's.

"Their account does not sound like driver error, a floor mat problem, or sticky pedal," Rep. Henry Waxman explained. "It sounds like an electronic defect."

Despite declining sales, 200 Toyota dealers gathered on Capitol Hill to show support for the company.

"How did we suddenly overnight become the villain?" Toyota dealer Paul Atkinson asked.

Now that the federal government has a major financial stake in two of the big three American automakers, Toyota dealers say something doesn't smell right.

"I ask you what's wrong with that picture?" Atkinson continued. "And that's what the next few days are about. We're going to get down to the bottom of this."

In prepared remarks to Congress, Toyota President Akio Toyoda said he takes "full responsibility" for the uncertainty felt by Toyota customers.

Toyoda will be in the hot seat Wednesday to answer lawmakers' questions.

*Originally published February 23, 2010

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