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Sunday, July 11, 2004

MEDIA MIX

It's best to be aware of this big trucking problem


The crimes of Mitsubishi Motors Corp. have made the media a little more attentive to vehicles that blow up. In the past several weeks, it seems an awful lot of MMC products have spontaneously combusted. Whenever they do, it's reported in the newspapers, and the frequency of such reports (at least four during the weekend of June 26) can't help but make you wonder how often these explosions happened when the media wasn't on the lookout for them. To paraphrase the old proverb, if a car catches on fire and no reporter is around to observe it, does it burn?

Usually, when a vehicle-related mishap is reported, the make and model are never mentioned. It's a tacit courtesy extended to the car industry by newspeople to avoid giving the appearance that the manufacturer might be to blame for the mishap. Under the shadow of the current scandal, however, such a courtesy can also seem like collusion.

The media say MMC's crimes are unique, a product of its corporate culture, as if what it did were an anomaly; but a look at the broader picture shows that MMC's conspiracy of negligence fits into a pattern of larger institutional negligence. Two recent TV news programs made it clear that whatever sins MMC committed, they were easy to commit, given the Japanese government's official business priorities.

Two weeks ago, NHK's nightly news feature, "Closeup Gendai," looked at a 2002 accident that led to more criminal charges being filed against several MMC executives July 1. A 39-year-old driver lost control of his MMC truck on an expressway in Yamaguchi Prefecture. The truck crashed into a building, killing the driver, whom the police blamed for the accident.

The culprit was actually a defective clutch-housing, and NHK showed how MMC knew of this problem as early as 1996, but did not announce a recall. The dead driver, who had a perfect 17-year driving record, brought his truck to an MMC service center three times in the months before the accident because of a strange sound. The service staff member was never able to determine the cause of the sound, and when they were interviewed by NHK they said it was because they had been led to believe that the clutch-housing was "indestructible," and therefore didn't even consider the possibility that that's where the problem was.

These and other defects, as well as MMC's concerted efforts to hide them, were eventually revealed by an insider, so it's easy to believe that the matter might never have been exposed otherwise. But there's more. On June 27, Nippon TV aired a documentary produced by Chukyo TV that focused on another deadly truck accident. In August 2002, two months before the Yamaguchi crash, a truck driver dozed off and plowed into several passenger cars on the Higashi Meihan Expressway. The driver survived but five other people died. He is now serving a five-year prison term.

The program looked at the driver's personal diary and found that he had worked almost every day for the previous month, during which he only slept at odd hours. This, apparently, is not unusual for truck drivers, who are constantly under pressure from customers to get their goods delivered faster and cheaper.

Chukyo TV followed one driver who had to deliver an order from a food manufacturer in Shiogama in Northern Japan to Nagoya in 12 hours. If he was late by one minute, the client wouldn't pay. When he arrived at the distribution center, he had to wait in line to unload. It would be another few hours before he could catch a few winks, after which he had to pick up another load. Some truckers in similar situations are less lucky. They have to return empty, which means they lose money.

Most of these drivers own their trucks, but they work for companies and the bulk of their salary is commission-based, so the companies have no trouble compelling them to work round-the-clock. According to Chukyo TV, it's also common for companies to ask drivers to lie on their time cards about how many hours they work in a row (in case the police do an audit) and to overload their vehicles, and to disable devices that limit their trucks' speed -- are clearly at fault, but they operate in an environment where such actions are taken for granted.

In 1990, the government decided that Japan's distribution system was a drag on the economy and deregulated the trucking industry. Anyone could start a transport business as long as they had five vehicles, and they could charge anything they wanted. In 10 years, the number of transport companies increased more than 25 percent, and competition increased with it. Trucks now account for 90 percent of all domestic freight shipments. In addition, safety rules were relaxed: long-distance drivers no longer had to have a second driver on board. The results? On the plus side, transport fees have dropped 23 percent since 1990, which means you save money at the supermarket. On the minus side, 55.7 percent of truckers who answered a government survey say they sometimes drive while sleepy.

MMC's criminal negligence and the transport industry's unsafe operating practices are not connected, but both are directly related to the country's de facto hands-off commercial policies, which posit the automative and freight industries as vital economic stimulators.

The evil spawn of these policies is those monster trucks barreling down the street where you live. It's important to keep in mind that the accident which characterized the MMC scandal could also be blamed on poor city planning: A wheel flew off the defective hub of an MMC truck in Yokohama and killed a woman walking along the side of the road. There isn't room enough on our narrow streets for both pedestrians and 10-ton trucks, but we accept it as an economic necessity.



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