Transport Chief Says U.S. Won't Sleep Until Toyota Improves Safety

U.S. has not ruled out the possibility of more fines

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Toyota on May 10 that Washington "will not sleep" until it is sure the Japanese car giant has improved safety and did not rule out the possibility of more fines.

During a visit to Toyota's headquarters, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that he and Toyota president Akio Toyoda met for "tough, but respectful and serious discussions" about Toyota's commitment to safety.

While Toyota's safety pledges since the crisis erupted have been "very encouraging," LaHood warned that the U.S government "will watch very carefully for improvements" and will look for tangible results from the automaker.

"The proof is in the pudding, and Mr. Toyoda understands what that means," said LaHood. "It's fine to have these measures in place but they need to be carried out. We will not sleep until we are sure that all Toyota vehicles are safe for American drivers."

He warned the possibility of the automaker being hit with another fine, after it agreed to pay a record $16.4 million in April to settle claims it hid defects, hinged on an ongoing review of 500,000 internal documents. "We will review all of the documents that we have received. We will make a decision on what happens after that," he said.

The U.S. transportation chief had previously criticized Toyota for the length of time it took to respond to its recent quality issues, describing the company as "safety deaf" in congressional hearings in February.

His invitation to the auto giant's headquarters follows Toyoda's February trip to the United States when the Toyota chief tearfully apologized for safety woes following a tense appearance at a congressional hearing into the problems. Toyoda pledged to overhaul quality control measures, including creating a new U.S. safety post, and requiring executives to do test-drives. The company has also said it will speed up the recall process and improve quality control.

"We are making strong progress in delivering on our commitment," Toyoda said, adding that the company was working "to ensure that all Toyota vehicles remain safe and reliable for our customers."

Toyota has also been hit with at least 97 lawsuits seeking damages for injury or death linked to sudden acceleration and 138 class action lawsuits from customers suing to recoup losses in the resale value of vehicles.

The recall crisis triggered a ratings downgrade by Moody's over concerns that product quality issues and the cost of litigation will dent Toyota's future profitability.

Toyota shares closed up 1.14% in Tokyo trade on May 10 and the company is expected to announce that it swung back to a profit in the past fiscal year when it releases its earnings results on May 11.

LaHood's visit will also see him meet with Toyota rivals Nissan and Honda and assess Japan's famous bullet trains as President Barack Obama looks to expand high-speed rail in the United States. Japan is pinning its hopes on the United States choosing its technology to develop high-speed rail, but it faces tough competition from China, France and South Korea.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2010

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