Toyota: Honesty is More Than Just a Word

When Toyota starts talking about honesty – as they did, while paying a $16.4 million fine for violating the recall regulations – we start patting down the data. An interesting snippet floated by yesterday. As our readers know, manufacturers are required to file Early Warning Reports every quarter – information about legal claims, warranty data, production numbers, deaths and injuries – to help NHTSA spot emerging defect trends.

This regulation, enacted as part of the Transportation Recall Enhancement Accountability and Documentation Act with great speed and good intentions, has had its share of problems. There was the four-year battle over what information would be public. (The agency and safety advocates envisioned a largely public data system; the manufacturers had an entirely different idea. Guess who won?). Then there has been the suggestion that EWR has not actually been useful as a statistical canary in a coalmine. Now we’re going to have to raise a few questions about coding.

Remember, this is self-reported data. Thanks to a tip from Randy and Alice Whitfield at Quality Control Systems we took a look-see at one of Toyota’s EWR reports regarding a claim filed against the automaker in a 2004 rollover crash. The driver, Zoe Chapman of Whitethorn, CA, was driving her T-100 truck at about 20 mph near Humboldt Redwoods State Park, when she lost steering. The truck climbed an embankment and rolled over. Chapman and her passengers were belted and escaped with minor injuries, but the truck was totaled. Immediately after the crash, Chapman and her passengers saw that the relay rod was severed at a line of rust. They happened to be professional and accomplished photographers who made an on-the-spot visual record of the evidence. Toyota looked at the same facts and decided that the relay rod broke as a result of the rollover and told Chapman to pound sand.

You might be scratching your head at this point, thinking: Didn’t I just read something about Toyota and defective relay rods?

You did! NHTSA just opened a new Timeliness Query to determine why Toyota recalled this very component in its Japanese truck models in 2004, but waited an entire year before it decided to grace American consumers with the repair. In fact, Toyota had told NHTSA that it was not necessary to recall the relay rods in the U.S., in part, because they had no reports of problems here.

Back to EWR. Toyota reported this claim to NHTSA, but it was coded as a rollover and powertrain- related claim.

Rollover? True. Powertrain? Nuh-uh. Where’s a reference to steering? Steering is coded 01 and Powertrain is 10.

Honest mistake? Deliberate obfuscation?

We can not answer these questions. One thing we can surmise – the data quality isn’t being checked. Regardless of the manufacturer’s opinion of what caused a crash, the law requires it to report it to EWR as it was reported to the automaker. And we quote from Compendium for Motor Vehicles having an Annual Production of 500 or more Vehicles Early Warning Reporting:  “When a claim or notice identifies or alleges any system or component as a possible contributing factor in the incident, the system(s) or component(s) are to be reported using the applicable component code as defined in the EWR regulation.”

We don’t know if “honest” really describes Toyota. But they sure are consistent.

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