- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 24, 2010

UPDATED:

The second day of Capitol Hill hearings on malfunctioning Toyotas and the response by U.S. inspectors resumed Wednesday with a personal apology from Toyota Motor Corp. President and CEO Akio Toyoda.

“I take full responsibility,” he said before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “I myself as well as Toyota am not perfect. … But we have never run away from our problems or pretended we didn’t notice them. … That is the core value we’ve kept close to our hearts from our founding days.”

The 53-year-old Mr. Toyoda, the grandson of the company founder, also vowed to again make safety the company’s No. 1 priority.

“We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization,” he said. “I regret that this has resulted in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today, and I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced. … My name is on every car.”

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He apologized directly to the Saylor family of California, who had four family members killed in a dealer-loaned Toyota with a gas pedal that got stuck under a floor mat.

“I will do everything in my power to ensure such a tragedy never happens again,” said Mr. Toyoda, who came to Capitol Hill from Japan to testify.

The Japanese automaker has recalled 8.5 million vehicles as a result of safety issues, including sudden and unexpected vehicle acceleration. Beyond seeking answers about the malfunctions, lawmakers wanted to know more about why Toyota appeared slow to recall vehicles and whether it dismissed evidence that acceleration problems went beyond gas pedals and floor mats to involve larger-scale electrical problems.

Mr. Toyoda testified about two hours into the hearing and followed Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Mr. LaHood defended the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during roughly two hours of questions by lawmakers.

“NHTSA has the most effective defect program in the world,” Mr. LaHood said, adding that the agency handles 3,000 complaints a year.

He did not directly answer the question of whether he thought Toyotas were safe to drive. But on a follow-up question he said, “Those recalled — we believe they are not safe.”

David Strickland, the new head of the NHTSA, was expected to testify, but Mr. LaHood said he would answer all of the questions because Mr. Strickland has been on the job only six weeks.

Rep. Edolphus Towns, New York Democrat, who is the committee chairman, started the hearing by saying, “In short, if the Camry and Prius were airplanes, they’d be grounded.”

Mr. Toyoda, who at first declined to attend the hearing, faced a public grilling unlike anything he has experienced in Japan — with lawmakers in a re-election year looking tough-minded and accountable on national TV.

Mr. Toyoda received his MBA in 1982 from Babson College in Massachusetts and spent time in California as vice president of a joint venture between Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Corp. He made his roughly four-minute statement in halting English but relied on the help of a translator to answer questions from lawmakers.

On Tuesday, James Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., told a House oversight panel that even a massive recall by the world’s biggest automaker may “not totally” resolve safety problems implicated in accidents in the United States that have killed nearly three dozen people.

Lawmakers today and yesterday also questioned whether the agency lacks the expertise to investigate problems properly and whether it was too close the industry it monitors.

“No higher standards have been set for ethics than those by [the Obama] administration,” Mr. LaHood said.

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