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Toyota safety woes spread

TOKYO, Feb 3 – Toyota Motor, reeling from a public-relations nightmare over accelerator problems, on Wednesday reported dozens of complaints in North America and Japan about brake failure on its top-selling Prius hybrid.

Toyota is a pioneer in fuel-sipping hybrids and any new question marks over the safety of the Prius could deal a major setback to its efforts to recover from massive recalls and heavy losses inflicted by the global economic crisis.

"As of the end of last year, we had dozens of complaints from dealers in Japan and North America," Toyota spokeswoman Mieko Iwasaki said.

The automaker is investigating the reports, which involve the new Prius model rolled out last year, she added.

Japan\’s transport ministry said it had received at least 13 complaints about Prius brakes in the two months to January alone.

Another Prius driver complained that his brakes failed last July, leading to a collision that slightly injured two people, a ministry official said.

"Many complaints were submitted in a short period of time. We are investigating the cases to determine what measures the ministry should take," the official said, without ruling out the possibility of a recall.

Japanese media reports that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the United States had received more than 100 complaints about the brakes of the new Prius.

Toyota shares slumped 5.7 percent to 3,400 yen Wednesday as investors reacted nervously to the reports of problems with the Prius, as well as figures showing a sharp drop in the automaker\’s US sales in January.

"Hybrid cars are almost the only cars selling well now in Japan and the US. If (the Prius) has a serious problem, that will have a strong impact on Toyota\’s performance," said Tatsuya Mizuno, analyst at Mizuno Credit Advisory.

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Prius cars made between 2004 and 2009 are among the models being recalled due to the risk of the accelerator pedal getting trapped in the fully open position by the floor mat.

The Japanese giant, which overtook General Motors in 2008 as the top-selling automaker, has been hit by a series of safety issues that have dented its coveted reputation as a producer of safe and reliable vehicles.

The company is recalling almost eight million vehicles worldwide — roughly equivalent to its entire 2009 global sales — due to problems with accelerator pedals that could cause the car to speed up unintentionally.

The Japanese maker, scrambling to prevent irreparable damage to its brand image, was criticised Tuesday by US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who said the massive recall came only after pressure from the US government.

"Since questions were first raised about possible safety defects, we have been pushing Toyota to take measures to protect consumers," LaHood said in a statement.

"While Toyota is taking responsible action now, it unfortunately took an enormous effort to get to this point."

Safety regulators are "considering a civil penalty against Toyota," a US official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak said Tuesday he believed Toyota\’s troubles with a defective accelerator pedal might be linked to software, after his Prius sped up while in cruise-control.

"Since my foot never touches the pedal," Wozniak told ABC News, the problem "cannot be a sticky accelerator pedal…. There might be some bad software in there."

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Toyota\’s US unit said Monday it had developed a fix for accelerator pedals and had started shipping parts to US dealers for repairs.

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