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Media culture is the driving force behind a lack of critical car-safety stories

by

Special To The Japan Times

Last month, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism released the results of tests to evaluate automatic braking functions that some automobile manufacturers now offer. The purpose of the tests, according to a report in the Asahi Shimbun, was to “provide consumers with a set of references when they choose a new car.”

The transport ministry used a point system to gauge performance. With automatic braking, the car stops or slows by itself when it draws too close to a moving or stationary obstacle in front of it. The tests were conducted at speeds between 10 and 60 kph. Three vehicles, Subaru’s Levorg, Nissan’s Skyline and Toyota’s Lexus LS, received “perfect scores.” In fact, 15 models received “advanced safety plus” ratings, with 11 cars earning an “advanced safety” rating without the “plus.”

Eight makers submitted a total of 26 models to the evaluation, which means all of them passed with flying colors. Moreover, the transport ministry testers concluded that “the more expensive the model, the better the results.” The ministry boasted that this is the first time any “government in the world” has “tested automatic brakes.” The Asahi apparently feels the precedent is notable, too, since it ran the article on page 1.

The test probably wouldn’t have merited as much attention if it weren’t for the current recall underway to check millions of automobiles in Japan and the U.S. for problems with air bags manufactured by the Japanese parts maker Takata. These air bags, it has been found, can spray deadly shrapnel when deployed during a collision, and reportedly four people in the U.S. have died from injuries caused by them. The recall has involved some 17 million cars worldwide since 2008, and U.S. regulators are demanding the company explain the situation in more detail than it has, since 10 million of those cars were sold in America, mostly by Honda, but also by Toyota, General Motors and other companies.

None of this is mentioned in the Asahi article, though at one point the reporter says that automatic braking makes a car “safer than air bags,” which is true only up to a point. An airbag is supposed to deploy in the event of an accident, while automatic brakes prevent accidents. Their functions are different, and the existence of one does not preclude the need for the other. If automatic braking doesn’t work properly, or another car hits you from an oblique angle, you still need the airbag. At any rate, air bags are standard in all cars right now, while automatic braking is not.

As with most recalls involving Japanese manufacturers, the Takata issue has been covered by the Japanese media sparingly, meaning without the kind of in-depth analysis that tends to accompany consumer-safety stories overseas, where driving is woven into the cultural fabric. It’s not that the Japanese media are shirking their responsibility regarding problems that could seriously affect the public. It’s just that the press doesn’t want to be seen as taking sides. Whenever a serious traffic accident occurs in which people die, the media do not reveal the make and model of the car involved, because doing so would not only upset advertisers but also suggest that maybe all Japanese car companies are not created equal. For that matter, it’s almost impossible to find public records of accident rates for specific models, though police and insurance companies surely have such data.

In the United States, where competition is a kind of birthright, consumers expect the media and relevant authorities to tell them which cars are safer, more fuel efficient, easier to drive and of better value. Such comparisons are considered bad form in Japan, which has engendered eight major car companies to America’s three, though it contains only one-third the population. It’s also why the transport ministry could carry out its automatic braking tests without annoying anyone. Unlike the nonprofit Consumer Reports (CR) organization in the States, which tests everything on the market, including automobiles, the transport ministry only tested cars submitted by manufacturers.

However, if the competition takes place abroad and Japanese carmakers are winning, the media is only too happy to spread the news. Japanese car companies are doing better than ever in the U.S., a story that has effectively overshadowed the Takata problem here in Japan. A Nov. 3 Tokyo Shimbun feature focused on the rivalry between Toyota and Volkswagen. The two automakers are running even worldwide in terms of sales, but in the U.S. Toyota commands a 14.4 percent share while VW only claims 2.2 percent (3.6 if you include Audi). Toyota, it seems, knows the American consumer better than VW does.

The article goes on to state that Subaru’s U.S. sales have increased 17 percent in the last year and how Japanese automakers dominated this year’s CR rankings for most reliable cars. There is no mention of Takata, which is covered separately by the newspaper in an editorial that delicately downplays the gravity of the safety issue: Air bags are supposed to provide peace of mind, so they should function as advertised.

The Asahi addresses a different foreign rival, Hyundai, in an Oct. 6 feature that describes how the South Korean automaker’s U.S. sales have been “lackluster” even as the market has grown. Though the article blames Hyundai’s troubles mainly on the high won, it also says the company, like Volkswagen, hasn’t properly read the U.S. market, relying instead on its superannuated reputation as the default cheap brand in the U.S., and while the Takata recall is mentioned in passing, Hyundai’s recent government fine for exaggerating fuel efficiency is covered thoroughly.

Though the piece doesn’t gloat over Hyundai’s situation, it does say the company, once characterized as the “Japanese car killer” overseas, is suffering growing pains because of its impatience to reach the top, which sounds like Toyota or Honda about 30 years ago. Maybe that’s always the case when you rely so much on America.

  • rossdorn

    If japanese drivers want more safety on the road, they ought to consider learning how to drive….

  • Norikazu Wada

    The day when autonomous driving comes should be delayed thanks to the mass amounts of recalls across the globe.

    The recall ratio in Japan might be far above that of consumption tax: and keep growing too :)

  • Steve Jackman

    I think one can safely say that mainstream Japanese media is in the pocket of the government and Japan Inc. It is no more than a PR tool for these two, therefore, I take everything I read in it with a bus-load of salt.

    • rossdorn

      That is true, yet… I am surprised that the censorship in this forum has been quite relaxed for a while now.
      Does anyone know why they changed that?