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WASHINGTON - What did Toyota know and when did it know it? Why didn't it do something about dangerous mechanical failures when everything was at risk? Now their entire fleet of vehicles, their network of dealers and their corporate brand has been damaged. And we are all left wondering, "Why did they drag their feet?"
According to comedian David Letterman, they were "trying to stop the car." There are plenty of jokes about Toyota making the rounds right now; all at the expense of the company that couldn't see that this problem could be deadly - both to Toyota drivers as well as to the company.
As a result, the company now faces serious questions as to whether or not to repurchase the purportedly defective vehicles. This multi-billion dollar question can't be answered by Toyota alone but needs the attention of auto regulators and governments worldwide.
That's right, government as the solution. It should not be up to Toyota to decide on a repurchase plan; it should be up to the appropriate agencies of government.
The U.S. National Highway Safety Administration has to answer questions about this as well.
Is it an under-funded regulatory agency still caught in the throes of the anti-regulatory ethos of the Bush-Cheney era? Was it too close to the industry that it was supposed to regulate, and did it fail to hold the Japanese giant accountable?
We understand that companies make decisions in what they believe to be the best interests of their shareholders in ways that might be considered "short sighted." However, we expect government regulators to understand the compelling interest of consumer safety. Inspectors and regulators have to be accountable to both consumers and producers to ensure both the physical safety of the driving public and the long-term survival of the industry.
It is also critical that Congress ensure that accidents of this magnitude are dealt with appropriately by government agencies. In addition, it is important to offer Toyota as a case study to avoid future corporate crises.
This was not the first company to have to address potential corporate malfeasance - Dow Chemical, Wal-Mart and Bridgestone/Firestone come to mind - and they won't be the last.
We must make it clear that these kinds of problems can cause more than the loss of human life; they are also damaging to the company's bottom line. Does any other CEO want to testify about their products at a congressional hearing? Toyota products, moreover, are not the modern equivalent of the famously unsafe Corvair of the 1960s; they are the flagships of the largest automobile manufacturer in the world.
While the brand may be damaged, and Toyota's suppliers and salespeople may be wondering about their futures, and their workers may be worried about plant shutdowns, the fault doesn't lie with the workers or the salespeople. There may be design flaws with the throttles, pedals or mats; over time, the company will address the causes and the solutions.
But it is unlikely that it was individual workers who caused such widespread and systematic problems. It is also not the fault of salespeople that there have been problems with the reporting of, and response to, the problems that appeared around the United States and in other countries.
Finally, we consumers can't regulate multinational corporations on our own. We need dependable, accountable regulatory agencies to ensure compliance with safety laws, and we need legislation to empower the agencies to carry out their mandate.
No matter what you think of Toyota, it is a company trying to make a product and make a profit. This is a clear case when it is the government on our side. We need good, effective government to do its job, and that is no joke.
Michael J. Wilson is national director of a liberal organization Americans for Democratic Action. Readers may write to him at ADA, 1625 K Street NW, Suite 210, Washington, D.C. 20006' Web site: www.adaction.org.