Toyota Motor Corp., the Japanese automaker that suffered a series of high-profile recalls, will pay $32.4 million in civil penalties, the U.S. Department of Transportation said Monday.

The penalty is the maximum allowed by law.

The fine wraps together two different instances. Toyota was fined $16.375 million for how it handled the recall of nearly five million vehicles with accelerator pedals that could become trapped by floor mats.

The company was also fined $16.05 million for improperly notifying the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about a safety defect that could result in the loss of steering.

In April, Toyota agreed to pay the maximum penalty of $16.375 million for a third instance involving the so-called sticky pedals. In that case, the Transportation Department asserted that Toyota failed to notify the safety agency within five days of learning of the defect.

The fines announced Monday bring the total civil penalties assessed on Toyota in 2010 to $48.8 million.

"Safety is our top priority and we take our responsibility to protect consumers seriously," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "I am pleased that Toyota agreed to pay the maximum possible penalty and I expect Toyota to work cooperatively in the future to ensure consumers' safety."
Probe began last winter

In February, NHTSA launched an investigation to determine when Toyota first learned of the pedal entrapment defect.

The safety agency says that Toyota didn't fulfill its obligation to report a known safety defect within five days, the timeframe required by law.

The agency also investigated Toyota's handling of a defect that could result in the loss of steering.

In 2004, Toyota conducted a recall in Japan for Hilux trucks with steering rods prone to cracking and breaking. At that time, Toyota told the U.S. safety agency that a recall wasn't necessary in the United States because the defect was isolated to vehicles in Japan and that it had not gotten similar complaints in the United States.

But a year later, Toyota informed NHTSA that the steering relay rod defect was present in several models sold in the United States and conducted a recall for nearly one million vehicles.

Then, in May 2010, the safety agency received additional information, including complaints from consumers, that Toyota had not disclosed when it said that a U.S. recall was unnecessary.

"Automakers are required to report any safety defects to NHTSA swiftly, and we expect them to do so," said David Strickland, the agency's administrator. "NHTSA acknowledges Toyota's efforts to make improvements to its safety culture, and our agency will continue to hold all automakers accountable for defects to protect consumers' safety."

Steve St. Angelo, Toyota's chief quality officer for North America, indicated that the company was eager to put this troubling chapter behind it.

"These agreements are an opportunity to turn the page to an even more constructive relationship with NHTSA and focus even more on listening to our customers and meeting their high expectations for safe and reliable vehicles."