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Toyota recalled 400 Celicas in 2003 because of fears that sliding floor mats would jam the accelerator pedal. ((David Zalubowski/Associated Press))

Toyota recalled cars in 2003 because of fears that sliding floor mats would jam the accelerator pedal — almost seven years before a similar large-scale recall, a CBC News analysis shows.

Critics in Canada and the United States say that the 2003 recall shows sliding floor mats in Toyota vehicles have been a problem for some time and that the company should have been more vigilant.

In 2003, Toyota recalled 400 Celicas because of the "potential" danger caused by the mats, an analysis of 12 years of Transport Canada vehicle recall data found.

The warning read in part: "On certain Panasonic Edition vehicles, the driver's floor mat may slide along the interior floor carpet when pressure is applied to the mat by getting in or out of the vehicle. As a result the floor mat may come in contact and interfere with the accelerator pedal."

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Owners of the Celica were urged to have their dealer install new floor mats and clips to keep the carpets in place.

In 2009, drivers of Toyota models including the 2009 and 2010 Rav4 and Matrix were informed that "on certain vehicles, if the specifically designed all-weather floor mat for that vehicle is not secured by the retaining clip or placed on top of an existing mat, the mat could move forward and may interfere with the accelerator pedal."

The company urged owners to contact their dealers.

'This is troubling'

George Iny, executive director of the Automobile Protection Association, said the 2003 recall should have been a warning that sliding floor mats could cause accelerator pedals to stick.

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Shirley MacDonald of Port Coquitlam, B.C., says her 2004 Toyota Echo crashed into a tree after it suddenly accelerated out of her control last summer. She is one of dozens of British Columbians who have joined a class-action lawsuit against Toyota. ((CBC))

He said the 2003 problems were caught quickly.

"The cars were only one year old, so the company had reacted relatively quickly," he said. "That means they were able to identify early on in a very accurate way — using a scalpel, basically — what would be covered."

Liberal MP Joe Volpe, vice-chair of the transportation committee holding hearings into the Toyota recalls, agreed. 

"The earlier recall suggests that Toyota was aware of this difficulty several years ago," he said.

"The current recalls identify a very similar situation. Now either Toyota was not completely forthcoming to Transport Canada on the causes of the problems, or Transport Canada bought a line or didn't act on the information it had.

"In either case, this is troubling. I think the [Transport] minister [John Baird] has got some serious questions to answer."

Recalls are different: Toyota

"The Government of Canada expects all vehicle manufacturers, including Toyota, to be fully accountable and transparent in identifying problems with their vehicles and taking all immediate actions necessary to ensure the safety of consumers," said a statement sent to CBC News from Baird's office.

"We continue to work with and monitor Toyota’s implementation of their solutions as the transport committee continues its examination into these matters."

Sandy De  Felice, director of external affairs for Toyota Canada, said the 2003 and 2009 recalls are different, in large part because the 2002 Celica needed to have retaining hooks installed to keep the sliding floor mats in place.

The company maintains that in the 2009 recall, the floor mats were not being secured by hooks designed to keep them in place.

"Both [the 2003 and 2009 recalls] do involve floor mats, that's correct," said De Felice. "The difference is the 2002 Toyota Celica was a carpeted floor mat and the current recall is on all-weather floor mats."

2003 recall sparks U.S. debate

The 2003 Canadian recall did come up during the February hearings of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Congressman Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, cited the recall in his opening remarks.

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James Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales in the U.S., leaves the hearing room after testifying to the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight in February in Washington. ((Alex Brandon/Associated Press))

"If Toyota first learned this could happen … in Canada seven years ago, why didn't it do something additional before fatalities and other serious accidents occurred? If the [U.S.] Department of Transportation knew about these problems before 2007, why didn't it do something sooner?"

James Lentz, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., told the committee he couldn't comment on the Canadian recall, because he never knew it happened.

"But I can tell you that a weakness in our system is that within this company we didn't do a very good job of sharing information across the globe," he told the committee.

"Most of the information was one-way. It would flow from the regional markets like the United States, Canada or Europe, back to Japan."

Lentz said the company would improve its quality control and do a better job of sharing information. His colleagues in Canada echoed that promise during their testimony before the House of Commons Transportation Committee on March 16.

If you have any information about the recall that you would like to share with David McKie, he can be reached at david.mckie@cbc.ca.