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Opinion: U.S. officials must force Toyota to do what's right

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...

Toyota on trial
David Fitzsimmons / Cagle Cartoons

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.

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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.

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.

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 liberal organization Americans for Democratic Action.

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