On Monday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it was fining Toyota $16.4 million for failing to recall vehicles due to faulty accelerator pedals in a timely fashion. Toyota has two weeks to either contest or pay the fine, but an e-mail obtained by the Detroit Free Press shows that it may be best for the Japanese automaker to quickly pay the fine and move on.

The document in question is an e-mail from Irv Miller, a now-retired public relations executive for the automaker's U.S. operations, and it shows that Toyota may have been aware of sticking gas pedals well before the company recalled 2.3 million vehicles to correct the potentially dangerous defect. Under federal law, automakers have five days after finding a safety defect before issuing an official recall.

Miller cautioned in his email that the automaker is not "protecting our customers by keeping this quiet. The time to hide on this one is over." Miller then went on to make absolutely clear that he was talking about unintended acceleration issues by adding "WE HAVE A tendency for MECHANICAL failure in accelerator pedals." The odd cadence of CAPS was apparently used by Miller for emphasis. Miller was apparently so concerned with top U.S. executive Yoshi Inaba and U.S. sales boss Jim Lentz's January meeting with NHTSA that he also wrote Toyota "better just hope that they can get NHTSA to work with us in coming to a workable solution that does not put us out of business."

The Freep
also reports that among the 70,000 documents gathered by NHTSA during its investigation was evidence that Toyota warned 31 European governments and Canada of the pedal problems as early as September, 2009. It reportedly even went as far as providing a service bulletin with instructions for repairing the pedals, but didn't issue a recall for sticking accelerator pedals in the U.S. until January 21, 2010.

Miller's e-mail could well make fighting that $16.4 million fine a really bad idea, but the larger looming issue may be that his words appear to show that Toyota wasn't acting in the best interest of its extremely loyal customers. It's a good thing Miller is (suddenly) retired, because he probably wasn't going to be the most popular guy in the office this week.

[Source: Detroit Free Press | Source Image: Bryan Mitchell/Getty]