Toyota Lawsuit: Remember the Ford Pinto?

Any implications that an automaker is hiding safety data from car owners can have a spectacularly damaging impact on that automakers reputation. It’s been decades since Ford dealt with its Pinto debacle (it was claimed that a poor rear design could allow the gas tank to explode and catch fire in collisions), and although Ford wasn’t found to have done anything criminal, the Pinto hangover remains to this day. In fact, it’s become industry shorthand for “appalling safety oversight that they heartless corporation seeks to hide.”

http://www.thebigmoney.com
September 3, 2009

Toyota Lawsuit: Remember the Ford Pinto?
Matthew DeBord

It hasn’t been a good year for Toyota, even as it finally surpassed General Motors (MTLQQ) to become the world’s largest automaker. It lost money for the first time in 59 years and has endured several major recalls, one of which it seemingly mishandled by not advising owners of a major problem with transmissions in its RAV4 SUV. More worrying, however, is a class-action lawsuit, filed in California, which alleges Toyota tried to cover up evidence that some of its vehicles could be deadly in roll-over accidents.

Roll-over accidents, in which a car or truck flips over onto its roof, can result in particularly horrific injuries, and deaths. Vehicles are increasingly engineered to be very safe in front- and side-impact crashes, but when the roof is exposed to major stress, it can be more difficult to protect occupants. Not only should the roof and its supporting pillars be strong enough to not collapse, but people need to be held inside the vehicle, so they aren’t ejected, where they’re obviously much more exposed to the full weight of their car or truck.

The two plaintiffs named in the suit were both rendered quadriplegics. Their roll-overs occurred in two of Toyota’s most popular cars, the Corolla and the Camry. The suit follows allegations by a former Toyota lawyer that the company tried to hide evidence of the roll-over danger from consumers.

Even though cars aren’t incredibly safe—some 40,000 Americans die in accidents every year, and 10,000 of those deaths are the result of roll-overs—people often assume they are, due to the manufacturer’s touting of their safety ratings. Roll-overs are particularly troubling, given that roughly one in four deaths happen when a car or truck flips. Making matters worse for Toyota, the class-action accidents didn’t happen in SUVs, which have been assailed for their tendency to roll-over, but in mass-market sedans, which are supposed to be more stable.

Any implications that an automaker is hiding safety data from car owners can have a spectacularly damaging impact on that automakers reputation. It’s been decades since Ford dealt with its Pinto debacle (it was claimed that a poor rear design could allow the gas tank to explode and catch fire in collisions), and although Ford wasn’t found to have done anything criminal, the Pinto hangover remains to this day. In fact, it’s become industry shorthand for “appalling safety oversight that they heartless corporation seeks to hide.”

Excuse the pun, but Toyota is in damage control mode right now. It needs to come clean and come clean in hurry. Selling safety to the car-buying public is a huge responsibility. But it’s even bigger when you’re number one.

Matthew DeBord has written about the auto industry for the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, and Car Design News.

http://www.thebigmoney.com/blogs/shifting-gears/2009/09/03/toyota-lawsuit-remember-ford-pinto


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