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Trust an issue for Toyota and regulators

Post by Cheryl Tucker on Feb. 17, 2010 at 7:35 pm |
February 17, 2010 6:07 pm

This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed piece, Toyota president Akio Toyoda wrote that his company “has always put the needs of our customers first.”

That claim sounds a little hollow in light of new revelations by Bloomberg News. It found that Toyota employees hired away from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration were able to help quash four investigations by the federal agency into possible safety issues involving unintended acceleration. That’s the very problem cited in at least 19 deaths between 2004 and 2009 and is at the heart of Toyota’s recall of 8.5 million vehicles.

Three congressional committees plan to hold hearings as early as next week, looking into when Toyota knew about its vehicles’ safety problems and how it responded to complaints. And the Transportation Department is demanding documents related to the recall to see if the giant automaker acted quickly enough. By law, automakers are supposed to notify the NHTSA within five days of discovering a defect.

Congress should also look into whether those former NHTSA employees hired by Toyota were able to exert undue influence on the agency, perhaps delaying a recall that might have saved lives.
The NHTSA – a Transportation Department agency – is facing criticism from consumer groups that it’s been too cozy with automakers and hasn’t been aggressive enough about using its subpoena powers to get information.

Regulators’ first responsibility is to the public, not to those they regulate. That can be a hard message to get across to agency employees, especially if they are looking to their next job – in the very industry they are regulating. There are waiting-period requirements for high-level agency people, but not for the lower-level positions like those held by the Toyota employees hired away from the NHTSA.

Even though there was no rule against Toyota hiring the NHTSA employees, the agency should have declined to work with them in connection with its investigations. Their inside knowledge of how things work at the NHTSA – and the people involved – could only have given them an advantage that now, in retrospect, looks bad for the agency.

The recall is more than a matter of safety for those who drive Toyotas. It’s also an economic blow to those involved with manufacturing and selling the vehicles. Sales are down, production has been halted at some locations, and people’s livelihoods are being affected.

It’s very possible that much of that impact might have been avoided had Toyota been more forthcoming earlier and federal regulators been more diligent. Toyota’s president has vowed to do whatever it takes “to restore trust in our word and in our products.”

Getting to the truth is the first step.

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