Members of Congress have a chance to ask some tough questions this week as two House committees hold hearings to investigate Toyota's recent safety issues. First, they should demand an explanation from company officials about how and when they learned of safety problems involving millions of vehicles. Second, they should seek answers from Toyota and U.S. officials about a series of recall and safety actions that appear to have put the company's bottom line ahead of public safety.
The hearings today and Wednesday are a serious test for the Japanese automaker, U.S. safety regulators and members of Congress. Toyota has recalled more than 9 million vehicles worldwide in recent months for problems related to sticking gas pedals, floor mats and brakes. His appearance Wednesday gives Toyota's president, Akio Toyoda, the grandson of the company's founder, a chance to apologize and to start reclaiming his company's reputation for quality. But the drama over his visit should not distract Congress from thoroughly examining Toyota's record and the government's own vigilance in enforcing safety standards.
Internal company documents released over the weekend by congressional investigators show that top Toyota officials in the United States took credit for saving the company hundreds of millions of dollars by stalling or paring back recalls and safety-related improvements. Toyota said it saved $100 million by negotiating a limited recall in 2007 of floor mats in Camry and Lexus ES models that allegedly contributed to sudden-acceleration problems. Officials said the company saved $124 million by delaying imposition of a federal rule on side-impact air bags and saved additional time and money by watering down other safety and recall efforts.
The company acknowledged Monday that federal prosecutors had opened a criminal probe into Toyota's safety problems. That development underscores the need for Toyota to be as candid as possible this week in Washington. Sudden acceleration in Toyotas has been blamed for 34 deaths since 2000, according to data by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A House committee letter to Toyota on Monday said documents show "Toyota consistently dismissed the possibility that electronic failures could be responsible for incidents of sudden acceleration.'' The company and government regulators also are reportedly looking into complaints about the power steering in the popular Corolla compact vehicle. And last week, federal authorities announced they would investigate whether Toyota had conducted its three recent recalls in a timely manner.
The stakes are high for Toyota, but federal regulators need to answer some questions, too. Why has the highway safety agency spent the past decade looking into complaints about Toyota's accelerators? Did regulators miss warning signs or fail to enforce automobile safety standards in a timely manner? The government has a vital role to play in highway safety, and Congress needs to ensure that responsibility is being carried out.