EDITORIAL: Let Toyota's record fine be a lesson to carmakers

March 22, 2014 

The $1.2 billion penalty against Toyota is the largest ever imposed on an automaker, but it's not overkill. The punishment fits the crime.

In the settlement announced Wednesday, the world's largest car manufacturer confessed to misleading consumers and deceiving regulators for years about deadly safety defects that caused vehicles to suddenly accelerate.

This is a landmark and welcome action by the U.S. Justice Department, forcing Toyota to settle criminal charges with a fine that is 35 times higher than civil penalties that can be levied by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2010 and 2012, Toyota paid maximum fines totaling $50 million for failing to report the accelerator defect on time.

As far back as 2007, the automaker knew that its gas pedals could get stuck under floor mats and had design flaws that could cause wild acceleration. But it resisted recalls, downplayed the dangers and continued selling cars with the problem parts.

It took until January 2010 for Toyota to fully recall millions of vehicles to fix the defects. During that delay, people died -- among them an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and three family members killed in a horrific, high-profile crash in San Diego County. While Toyota claims there have been only five documented deaths connected to the problems, the Center for Auto Safety says there have been hundreds of fatalities.

Without persistent reporting, notably by the Los Angeles Times, and hundreds of lawsuits filed by victims' families, who knows how long Toyota would have tried to minimize the risk.

Attorney General Eric Holder rightly also fired a warning shot at other automakers.

General Motors has admitted knowing about an ignition-switch problem for at least 11 years, but didn't recall 1.6 million small cars until last month. During the wait, at least a dozen people died in crashes when the faulty switches disabled power steering and brakes.

While automakers can afford to pay these huge penalties, the damage to consumer trust is even more costly and will take far longer to repair.

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