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January 31, 2015

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Sun Editorial:

A message to Toyota

Administration takes a welcome, tough stand against the automaker

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has taken a high-profile stance in pushing automaker Toyota to fix problems with sticking accelerators. He said the company’s American subsidiary had been “a little safety deaf,” adding that things changed after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration dispatched officials to Japan to deal directly with Toyota’s leaders.

LaHood, however, received some criticism for his tough stance. The former Republican congressman from Illinois was apparently too blunt in his assessments for some people. Asked during a congressional hearing last week what a driver of a Toyota subject to recall should do, LaHood said, “My advice is if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it, and take it to a Toyota dealer because they believe they have the fix for it.”

LaHood came under fire not so much for the content of his comments but because Toyota’s stock plummeted after he spoke those words. The skittish market overreacted, and the politicians in Washington are understandably concerned about the economy. However, what LaHood said was simply prudent advice and his tough stance against the company is welcome.

The consequences of an accelerator problem can be deadly. Toyota has recalled millions of vehicles and says it has ways to repair the problems, but this isn’t new for Toyota. There have been complaints for several years about some Toyota and Lexus models with floor mats interfering with the accelerator or the accelerator sticking. Toyota has been lax about fixing the problem, and federal officials hadn’t exerted proper oversight.

The federal government has investigated accelerator problems with Toyota in the past. ABC News found that in 2004 the NHTSA opened an investigation into the problem of sudden acceleration, looking at the computer-controlled throttle. At the behest of former federal officials who were working for Toyota, NHTSA limited the scope of the inquiry to exclude incidents that lasted longer than a second or two. That limitation excluded many serious incidents that could have demonstrated a pattern. Instead, the investigation was closed without finding a problem.

ABC reported that other federal investigations of computer issues in Toyota models since then have had the same limitation — and the same result.

It took a fatal crash in August that killed an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and his family in a Lexus with a stuck accelerator for Toyota to reconsider the issue. Although the cause of the accelerator problem has not been clearly pinpointed, the company recalled millions of Toyota and Lexus models and came up with a preliminary fix to reduce the chance of floor mat problems.

The issue of sticky accelerator pedals, however, was left until this month and only after U.S. officials pressured the company to do something. Now, Toyota is facing complaints of brake problems with its Prius model as well.

LaHood pledged that the NHTSA will “hold Toyota’s feet to the fire to make sure that they are doing everything they have promised to make their vehicles safe. We will continue to investigate all possible causes of these safety issues.”

Those shouldn’t be words that are bothersome to Wall Street or anyone else. The federal government slumbered under the Bush administration in its role to regulate industry.

LaHood’s words are a comfort that Washington is once again looking out for the public’s safety, and that’s reassuring.

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