Taking it Easy on Toyota? Not Us, Say LaHood and NHTSA

Last Updated Apr 6, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have faced congressional criticism that they were too easy on Toyota, but nobody can accuse either of taking it easy on Toyota now.

It's not the money that hurts -- despite its current problems, Toyota could find the proposed fine of $16.4 million between its sofa cushions. It's the way LaHood threw the book at Toyota.

In a harshly worded written statement today, LaHood couldn't make it any plainer that in his official view, Toyota knowingly concealed a serious safety defect. That's got to shake up at least some of Toyota's loyal Baby Boomer following.

"We now have proof that Toyota failed to live up to its legal obligations," LaHood said. "Worse yet, they knowingly hid a dangerous defect for months from U.S. officials and did not take action to protect millions of drivers and their families. For those reasons, we are seeking the maximum penalty possible under current laws," he said.

LaHood said safety regulators will seek the maximum civil penalty in Toyota's unintended acceleration case, which amounts to about $16.4 million. He said the agency continues to investigate whether more penalties could be sought.

In earlier congressional hearings, criticism of NHTSA followed party lines. Democrats were especially likely to blame the Bush Administration's NHTSA for being too cozy with the car companies it was supposed to regulate.

That wasn't on LaHood's watch, but NHTSA is LaHood's turf now. By sinking its teeth into Toyota, NHTSA protects its watchdog reputation.

According to NHTSA, Toyota failed to notify the auto safety agency of the dangerous "sticky pedal" defect for at least four months. About 2.3 million Toyota vehicles in the United States were recalled in late January for the sticky pedal defect, NHTSA said.

Toyota responded with a written comment that said Toyota is taking steps, "to improve our communications with regulators and customers on safety-related matters as part of our strengthened overall commitment to quality assurance."

Photo: Toyota