Is the Government Out to Get Toyota?

It doesn’t look like the feds are being fair to the Japanese auto manufacturer.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

It may just be that U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood forgets to engage his brain before he puts his mouth in gear. Either that or he is deliberately trying to make it harder for Toyota to maintain its share of the American automobile market.

Right now, thanks to the way the media has hyped the story, it would be hard to blame a consumer who questioned the overall safety of Toyota's passenger car fleet. LaHood has not helped matters, missing wherever he can the opportunity to calm the fears of the American public.

Back in February, he raised more than a few eyebrows when he suggested the proper response for anyone concerned about the safety of Toyotas was to "stop driving" them, a comment he was later to retract as an embarrassing misstatement. Now LaHood, who has just announced the Japanese automaker faces a record $16.4 million fine, is accusing the company of being "safety deaf" and says he would not be surprised if further reviews of internal company documents find additional problems with the vehicle fleet.

It sure sounds like he is trying to convince people not to buy Toyotas, which is a seemingly odd move considering the number of people in the United States whose jobs depend on that one company, its manufacturing facilities, and its dealerships. Then again, Toyota workers are not members of the powerful United Autoworkers Union, a key part of the Democrats' electoral coalition. And the U.S. government--of which LaHood is a most senior official--is not a part owner of the company.

These are just some of the reasons to wonder about the way in which this investigation has been conducted and if its spokesmen, including LaHood, have been impartial and even-handed. Their job is not to alarm the public but to reassure the American people that everything is being handled in an appropriate and judicious manner. Like the one they have regarding the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's preliminary investigation, announced earlier this month, into the possibility that vehicle brake lines have corroded in 6.2 million General Motors Co. vehicles.

According to the Detroit News, "NHTSA's investigation--made public today--includes 6 million 1999-2003 GM pickups and SUVs and 189,000 2003 2500 heavy-duty pickups. The investigation covers all models built--not all models remaining on the roads--so the actual number could be lower than 6.2 million."

"The complaints allege the loss of braking effectiveness due to brake line rupture because of corrosion," NHTSA investigator Chris Lash said in a government filing. "In 37 of these complaints, the brake line failure was confirmed by a dealer inspection." This is a calm and reasonable way to approach the problem about which no one, including the folks who run Government Motors--excuse me--General Motors should have any complaint. It's just too bad the standard does not seem to be equally applied.

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