Toyota has told the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that safety is a shared responsibility among automakers, government and consumers, and that Toyota is doing its part to lead the way in applying advanced technologies to provide SUV occupants greater protection.

"Toyota's internal corporate philosophy is not only to meet, but to exceed, the motor vehicle safety standards in every market where we sell vehicles," said Chris Tinto, director, technical and regulatory affairs for Toyota Motor North America.

"Consistent with Toyota's philosophy of continuous improvement -- or kaizen -- we do not wait for Federal requirements before incorporating safety technology."

Tinto said that Toyota is ahead of schedule in meeting all voluntary industry guidelines on side airbags to help reduce injury potential to children, achieving full implementation across its entire SUV and passenger car fleet by the 2003 Model Year.

Tinto also stressed the role of seat belts.

"Too many Americans ignore the single most effective safety system in the vehicle. It is essential that primary seat belt usage laws go on the books in all 50 states," Tinto told the committee. "Data show that the usage rates in states with primary belt laws average 80 percent vs. 69 percent for states without these laws.

"Just improving belt usage to the 90 percent rate currently found in California, for example, could save thousands of American lives per year -- far exceeding any technological advances that we could now envision. This change could be implemented quickly, with an immediate result in lives saved. This would be especially useful in rollovers, to keep occupants inside the vehicle where it is safest."