U.S. Transportation Chief LaHood Encouraged By Toyota Safety Steps

May 10, 2010

U.S. Transport Secretary Ray LaHood said he was encouraged by the steps Toyota Motor Corp. has put in place to improve vehicle safety, but stressed he will be convinced only when its cars actually become safer.

“I believe that they have put in place some measures that will enable us at the Department of Transportation to have a better handle and a better form of information if they’re carried out,” LaHood told a news conference in Toyota City after touring the automaker’s safety facilities.

“And what I told Mr Toyoda today (is), these measures are important measures but I use the American colloquialism: the proof is in the pudding,” he said, adding that “time will tell” whether Toyota’s efforts will bear fruit.

Toyota is on a mission to put the worst quality crisis in its history behind it, setting up regional task forces to boost customer satisfaction and expedite decisions on recalls by relaying complaints back to headquarters more quickly.

The world’s biggest automaker has recalled some 8 million vehicles globally since last October to fix accelerator pedals that can become stuck with condensation and pedals that can be held down by floormats, forcing it to take the unprecedented step of temporarily halting production of some of the models.

Last month, Toyota agreed to pay a record $16.4 million federal fine for delaying a safety recall over defective accelerator pedals, although it denied violating regulations and said it was paying to avoid a protracted dispute with regulators.

U.S. safety regulators are looking into a possible second fine based on documents submitted by Toyota, which indicated there were two separate defects in the recalled pedals.

Asked about the probe, LaHood, who has called Toyota “safety deaf” for its handling of the recalls, said the review — of 500,000 documents — was still ongoing, and that it “will be a while” before it could be completed.

Cases of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles have been linked to more than 50 deaths in the United States over the last decade.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda, standing a few feet away from LaHood, repeated that the automaker had never intentionally concealed information from regulators and would continue to cooperate in the investigations.

Toyoda said LaHood had praised Toyota for its speedy handling of recalls last month of the Lexus GS 460 luxury SUV for problems with the electronic stability control system, and vowed to make more progress in communicating with customers and regulators.

LaHood is in Japan to look at the country’s high-speed train systems for possible use in the United States, and visited Toyota’s global headquarters in response to an invitation from Toyoda.

LaHood said he would also visit Honda Motor Co and Nissan Motor Co.

(Editing by Michael Watson)

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