How to Get Toyota to Listen to Customers. Hint: Bring Your Lawyer

In May 2011, everybody at Toyota North America joined hands and sung Kumbaya – it was the release of the much-vaunted A Road Forward: The Report of the Toyota North American Quality Advisory Panel. The report was part of a public relations blitz to restore consumer confidence in Toyota products in the wake of the Unintended Acceleration debacle. And, within the 60 pages of corporate soul-searching was the way back home – and it ran right through Toyota’s customers. The glossy document was laced with admissions that Toyota had failed to heed the voices of its customers such as this:

“Toyota has recognized that many of the challenges it faced in 2009 and 2010 were a result of failures to adequately listen to and incorporate external feedback from various stakeholders, including consumers, third-party rating agencies, and regulators.”

A company personage no less distinguished than Stephen St. Angelo, Toyota’s North American Chief Quality Officer, promised the dawn of a new day:

“Right from the outset, we told them we wanted them to be straightforward with us, because we seriously want to keep improving our processes and our transparency. It is important to note that the Panel focused primarily on how we operate and communicate. While I am glad they’ve recognized the positive changes we’ve already made, I also appreciate how they want us to keep at it. I’ve told them we intend to do just that.”

So, how have they been doing with that listening stuff? Well that depends.

If you are a Toyota or Lexus customer who has merely complained about a UA event, you may not get beyond conversations with their customer care folks or a visit from the SMART team, who will tell you that your car’s just fine.

But, if you are a consumer who has been drawn into the multi-state litigation, Toyota will listen to you in a day-long deposition, in which Toyota wants you to bring every scrap of communication you made or received about Toyota – including with your family.

Toyota sought to depose at least eight consumers who experienced a UA in their Toyotas, most of them named by the plaintiff’s attorneys as “absent class members.” Although the plaintiffs withdrew some of their names, experts relied on a few of those incidents in formulating their opinions. Naturally, Toyota wants their own crack at these folks. Earlier this month, Judge Selna, who is overseeing the Multi-District Litigation in Orange County California, ruled that it saw little point in compelling a deposition since the absent class member is not going to offer any evidence to support class certification. Toyota has challenged this ruling. The legal tug-of-war continues.

Why are Pedestrian Deaths Rising?

Here’s a traffic safety fact: You don’t really know if an increase in the raw number of pedestrian fatalities really represents an upward trend unless you know how many pedestrians there are and how many miles they’ve walked.

That didn’t stop the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from releasing a micro report on the subject, based on data collected for its annual compendium of crash statistics Traffic Safety Facts. The seven-page report, prepared by the agency’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis noted 4,280 pedestrian deaths -- a four percent increase from 2009 to 2010. It quantified when and where the fatalities took place and who was more likely to die on foot. But the report, Pedestrians, was short on the whys – other than alcohol involvement --and other factors underpinning the data. And the contextual gaps raised the ire of walking advocates, who watched the mainstream press report the raw numbers uncritically.

Wendy Landman, executive director of WalkBoston, a group that advocates for walkable communities, says that two days after NHTSA released Pedestrians, the Centers for Disease Control issued an analysis saying that almost two thirds of Americans are taking regular walks – defined as at least one 10-minute walk per week – and that this group swelled by six percent over 2005. So, does the increase in pedestrian deaths have anything to do with the possibility that more people are walking? Pedestrians did not consider denominators – only numerators.

“What this report doesn’t get into is exposure,” Landman says. “We have one piece of the picture and only one piece. We need better data and more explicative data that could help us figure out what’s going on.”

Too Big to Crash?

According to the Centers for Disease Control one third of Americans over the age of 20 are over-weight, another third are obese, but the world of occupant protection is stuck in the 50th percentile. A latest study – by researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Institute – builds on other research showing that obese occupants are more likely to suffer injuries or a fatality in a crash, and finds that poor belt fit is a factor in those outcomes.

Effects of Obesity on Seat Belt Fit, published in Traffic Injury Prevention, studied a population of 48 men and women, with nearly half obese, as defined by a body mass index (BMI) of 30kg/m2 or greater. The static laboratory testing, using a seat manufactured in the 1990s that is still typical of current designs, shows broadly that the greater the BMI, the higher the lap belt portion rides on the lower body and the more slack is introduced to the shoulder belt restraining the upper body.

“In order for the seat belt to work effectively, the lap belt needs to rest snugly, low on your hip bones.  Obese people have significantly more fatty abdominal tissue which compromises belt fit – making it hard to position the lap belt on the pelvis properly,” says SRS biomechanical engineer Salena Zellers. “In addition, fatty abdominal tissue compresses under seat belt loading, increasing the occupant’s excursion.   Compression of the abdominal tissues also introduces slack in the restraint system - never a good idea.”

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