Deadly Purchases

by BINOY KAMPMARK

Even David Letterman found room to mock it, but Toyota’s recent acceleration debacle is an episode the company would rather forget.  The Japanese giant is mired in a controversial recall of vehicles for sudden acceleration defects, numbering 8.5 million in the United States alone.  There is a growing clamour for the head of Toyota Motor Corporation’s CEO Akio Toyoda.  Old cases of vehicular homicide, such as that Koua Fong Lee, whose 1996 Camry killed three people after it shot up an exit ramp in 2006, may be reappraised. 

In this sense, Toyoda and his maligned corporation join the pantheon of auto companies who have erred on the side of lethal danger.  Ford has no reason to gloat in Toyota’s misfortunate, itself having recalled 14.9 million vehicles (a number that continues to rise) for a dubious cruise control switch prone to causing spontaneous engine fires (Forbes.com, Feb 24).

The life of the modern consumer can be a dangerous one, and caveat emptor has never quite disappeared as a vital maxim for every day purchases.  Automobile deaths have a grizzly, spectacular element to them, exciting much public comment and calls for vengeance.  But this obscures the fact that other, equally deadly events have taken place, often under the radar of popular anger.  In the U.S. alone, consumer goods have proven fatal on more occasions than people might care to remember.  Think of the rather innocuous and ubiquitous peanut butter, source of a scandal last year that led straight to a Georgia processing plant, responsible for shipping over 30 million pounds of peanut butter with salmonella trimmings.  The casualties were high: 8 deaths and 500 illnesses.

Last December, 50 million Roman-style window blinds and roller shades were recalled after it was revealed that five small children had perished to them.  Sixteen others were almost strangled to death.  And these are just a few samples that should be making purchasers flee the market.

When such instances take place, the suspicious eye will roam.  The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee is wondering whether the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had gotten too close to the auto industry, letting standards slip.  It has been a known fact for sometime now that Toyota has picked former NHTSA employees to fill its ranks. 

The Senate Committee has sent a letter to the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation requesting a more expansive audit of NHTSA.  The purpose – to investigate ‘industry-wide complaints or reports collected by NHTSA regarding sudden unintended acceleration and brake failure in automobiles with electronic throttle and braking control systems.’  The audit, so claims the letter, will examine officials of the NHTSA excluded vital data from investigations.

Toyota has not covered itself in glory.  An internal memorandum that was leaked to the press this week boasts of a ‘win’ for the company in 2007 when it recalled a modest number of floor mats (only 55,000) over the issue of sudden acceleration.  The enterprise saved the company $100 million.  Speed is the essence in such recalls, and the company has proven tardy in that regard.  It took the fatalities of four Californians in late 2009 to change Toyota’s unenthusiastic tone.  But in so behaving, it is in rather good, if dire, company.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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