Safety comes to the fore

UPDATED: 7/9/14 10:40 am ET - correction

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly said Toyota was fined for failing to cooperate with U.S. investigators.

As the General Motors recall crisis evolves, it's clear that the entire auto industry's approach to quality, safety, public disclosure and legal responsibility will change fundamentally.

GM's attitude about recalls is changing for the better. It is taking the initiative in compensating victims. 

But GM is still playing defense. And the $1.2 billion fine the Department of Justice imposed on Toyota this year related to its 2009-10 recalls is a signal that future punitive damages on safety issues will not be limited to civil cases. 

Old ways of dealing with safety flaws -- minimizing recalls and compensating victims privately through nondisclosure agreements -- just aren't good enough anymore. Regulators won't allow them, and the public won't accept them. 

And, frankly, emerging details of past stalling, incompetence and lax behavior at GM leaves everybody without a plausible defense in the future. 

The industry is trying to learn from GM's case. For starters, it changes the economics of auto safety by making the cost of repairs far more expensive than prevention.

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