CORRECTED – UPDATE 3-US transport chief: Toyota paying closer attention

(Corrects paragraph 9 and subhead reference to Toyota progress
to strong from some)

* Ray LaHood does not rule out new fine against Toyota

* Says probe of Toyota will take months to complete

* LaHood expects Akio Toyoda to visit U.S. again

* Toyoda says strong progress made through safety efforts

* Toyota shares up 2.4 percent in New York

By Chang-Ran Kim, Asia autos correspondent

TOYOTA CITY, Japan, May 10 (BestGrowthStock) – The Obama
administration believes Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T: )(TM.N: ) is
paying closer attention to safety concerns, but Washington
continues to investigate the carmaker and will not rule out a
new fine, the top U.S. transport official said on Monday.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is encouraged by the
automaker’s recent safety steps and will be watching carefully,
he said at a news conference and in a separate conference call
with reporters following a meeting with Toyota Chief Executive
Akio Toyoda in Toyota City.

“We’re going to continue to pay very close attention to our
safety responsibility and pay close attention to make sure that
Toyota is holding up its safety criteria and making sure that
their cars are safe,” LaHood said.

LaHood said he had a frank discussion with Toyoda at Toyota
headquarters about the crisis that shook confidence in the
company’s popular brands this year.

The automaker recalled more than 6.5 million Toyota and
Lexus vehicles in the United States — 8 million worldwide —
in 2009 and this year, mainly for complaints about unintended
acceleration.

U.S. regulators are investigating allegations that the
problems are associated with up to three dozen crash deaths
over the past decade.

Heavy scrutiny by U.S. regulators and lawmakers prompted
Toyota to establish a quality control panel in North America to
boost customer satisfaction, streamline the flow of information
to and from headquarters, and expedite recall decisions.

“What I told Mr. Toyoda today (is), these measures are
important measures but I use the American colloquialism: The
proof is in the pudding,” LaHood said, adding that time will
tell whether Toyota’s efforts will bear fruit.

Appearing with LaHood, Toyoda told reporters that he
believes the company is “making strong progress” in delivering
on its promises.

“Today, Secretary LaHood and officials of the Department of
Transportation have witnessed our commitment to quality with
their own eyes through a tour of our facilities,” Toyoda said.

LaHood said he expected Toyoda to visit the United States
for a second time this year in September or October to meet
with U.S. lawmakers and safety regulators. Toyoda testified
before Congress in February at the height of the company’s
troubles.

U.S.-listed shares of Toyota were up 2.4 percent at $76.69
in morning New York Stock Exchange trading.

INVESTIGATION CONTINUES

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
continues to investigate whether Toyota violated U.S. law by
delaying a 2009 recall of all-weather floormats that could jam
the gas pedal and cause uncommanded acceleration.
[ID:nN10144044]

LaHood said regulators were poring over 500,000 pages of
documents and would not know what, if any, action may be needed
for a couple of months.

He did not rule out a fine, which would be the second
against Toyota.

“We will make whatever recommendations or make whatever
decisions we have to make based on what is in those documents,”
LaHood said.

“If there are car manufacturers that violate the laws, then
we will take appropriate action,” said LaHood, who earlier this
year pressed hard for recalls and characterized Toyota as a
little “safety deaf.”

Toyota agreed to pay a record $16.4 million U.S. fine last
month for delaying a January recall over defective accelerator
pedals that would not spring back as designed.

Toyota denied violating regulations in the “sticky pedal”
recall and said it was paying the penalty to avoid a protracted
and expensive dispute with U.S. officials.

U.S. regulators, assisted by space agency and other
scientific experts, are also examining whether electronic
systems in Toyota and Lexus throttles have anything to do with
unintended acceleration.

The automaker and regulators were sharply criticized by
Congress and safety advocates for their handling of related
complaints over the years.

Most recently, Toyota has recalled the Lexus GS 460 luxury
sport utility for problems with the electronic stability
control system.

Toyoda said LaHood had praised the company for its prompt
handling of that matter.

A proposed change in U.S. law prompted by the Toyota saga
would give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
new powers to more easily force recalls. Another proposal would
remove the $16.4 million cap on fines.

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(Additional reporting by John Crawley in Washington; Editing
by Michael Watson and Lisa Von Ahn)

CORRECTED – UPDATE 3-US transport chief: Toyota paying closer attention