Washington and Los Angeles : Signalling renewed vigour in the federal government's scrutiny of Toyota, US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is heading to Japan to meet with company president Akio Toyoda.

LaHood said the department was examining 500,000 internal documents recently turned over by the automaker in hopes of determining when it began to withhold crucial information about defects in its vehicles. The government has already fined Toyota a record $16.4 million (Dh60 million) for failing to disclose safety problems related to sudden acceleration.

The volume of paperwork is much greater than originally anticipated, and the analysis could take months, LaHood said. So far, he said, the evidence suggests that Toyota ignored safety warnings from its US engineers.

‘Blind eye'

"Toyota was turning a blind eye or a deaf ear to their own people in North America," the secretary told The Times in his first interview on Toyota's handling of the sudden-acceleration crisis.

"We really have to determine how long it has occurred, and we won't know that until we complete our analysis."

LaHood made his comments on the eve of his trip to Japan and his meeting tomorrow with Toyoda, where he plans to deliver a stern message the US will not tolerate violations of safety laws that jeopardise the public.

"They have to understand that safety is our No 1 priority, always has been, always will be," LaHood said. "We want to be sure they will do things the right way. And we may have to come back to them after reviewing documents and speak to them about what has taken place in the past."

Toyota officials did not return calls seeking comment on the company's expectations for the meeting.

Former regulators and auto safety experts said they could not recall such a high-level meeting between a US Cabinet secretary and a Japanese manufacturer over safety concerns, an indication LaHood is also working to show critics the department is not soft on automakers.

"It is very unusual for a department secretary to meet with a chief executive during a defect investigation," said Joan Claybrook, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a division of the Transportation Department.

She added she would have demanded Toyoda come to her office in Washington.

Since late September, Toyota has issued nearly 11 million recall notices for vehicles worldwide and has come under a wide range of legal, political and regulatory investigations. NHTSA is conducting multiple investigations into whether Toyota violated US safety rules and may issue additional fines, the agency has said.

LaHood said it was not clear when Toyota began a practice of withholding information about problems in its vehicles, though at least one formal violation of those rules triggered the $16.4 million fine, for delaying a recall for nearly four months of vehicles with gas pedals that could stick. Toyota agreed to pay the fine without challenging it last month.

NHTSA's handling of Toyota's safety problems has also come under scrutiny. Despite thousands of complaints and allegations of several dozen deaths caused by sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles, the agency closed multiple investigations of Toyota in the last eight years without finding defects.