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70 times safer than the roads themselves

by Hiroaki Sato

NEW YORK — The Toyota saga, though quiet for the moment, will continue. “Lawyers Vie for Lead Roles in Toyota Lawsuits,” said a headline in The Wall Street Journal (March 15). The company’s “legal bill for unintended-acceleration cases will be in the billions,” predicted Jeremy Anwyl of Edmunds.com, writing for The Washington Post (March 16). This is a litigious society or, as the Japanese call it, Lawyers’ Paradise.

So far, two aspects of the matter have drawn my attention: cultural and mathematical.

When Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota, agreed to appear in a congressional hearing, a friend of mine in Japan who spent some years in this country, sent me an article by a Japanese writer living in New Jersey, saying he fully agreed with him. The writer, Akihiko Reizei, writes an online Japanese column called “911/USA Report.” The article in question had to do with his strong advice to Toyoda on his appearance in Congress. Apparently unsolicited, it read like a confidential legal brief. The first thing Reizei told Toyoda was: Never, ever apologize.

“Apologizing is something you should never do. Both the word ‘apology’ and the word ‘sorry’ are taboos,” warned Reizei, a graduate of the University of Tokyo and Columbia University. He has written books on the United States.

“Using these words is like declaring that there has been a clear malice and an obvious error [on your part] and that you don’t mind being saddled with any kind of responsibility for them. Specifically, an apology may lead not just to damage suits but also to lawsuits from shareholders and from workers laid off” in the recession.

Reizei went on: “In Japan, apology is an expression of sincerity for any problem that may have occurred, and it cannot possibly be turned into a cause for a lawsuit.”

In truth, “Thou shalt not apologize in the United States. Thou shalt first apologize in Japan” has become the big point to make for any intercultural commentary. “In Japan, senior executives whose companies make big mistakes undertake a familiar, public ritual of apology. They express regret. Often they resign,” The Wall Street Journal (Feb. 25) emphasized. “In the U.S., executives whose companies make big mistakes don’t bow. Instead, they hire lobbyists, publicists and lawyers.”

In the event, Akio Toyoda came right out and apologized. “In the past few months,” he said in his testimony in the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, on Feb. 24, “our customers have started to feel uncertain about the safety of Toyota’s vehicles, and I take full responsibility for that.” He did not use the word “apology” but did use the word “sorry.” “I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced.”

So, was Akihiko Reizei all wrong? Were the horde of intercultural advisers, hired or otherwise, who must have proffered similar advice all wrong? Or did Toyoda do the right thing in sticking to his Japanese ways, as it were, and offering apologies and contrition?

The other aspect is mathematical or the question of numeracy. Numeracy or, rather, innumeracy is an idea popularized 20 years ago by John Allen Paulos, professor of mathematics at Temple University. It has to do with our ability or inability to grasp the proportion or magnitude of what happens in our daily life. In “Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences,” Paulos cites a number of handy examples, but let me cite my own.

Three years ago, a student at Virginia Tech shot dead 32 people, wounding 30 more. That shocked this country — the whole world, actually — and a great deal of moaning and hand-wringing by Americans ensued.

But in all the articles I read to write a series of reports on gun control in the U.S. — surely a misnomer — no one bothered to point out that 32 happens to be the average number of killings that occur in this country every day. Or was at the time. At the time, the latest year for which the total of gun murders compiled by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention was available, was 2004, and that year a total of 11,624 people were shot dead. If you divided that number by 365, you got 32.

So Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the Washington think tank New American Foundation, wrote an article for The New York Times (March 9), provocatively titling it “Toyotas Are Safe (Enough).” Wright did not use the word “numeracy” or “innumeracy,” but his point was based on the same idea.

“If you drive one of the Toyotas recalled for acceleration problems and don’t bother to comply with the recall,” Wright calculated, “your chances of being involved in a fatal accident over the next two years because of the unfixed problem are a bit worse than one in a million — 2.8 in a million, to be more exact. Meanwhile, your chances of being killed in a car accident during the next two years just by virtue of being an American are one in 5,244.”

What were the actual figures Robert Wright used? The number of cars recalled was 6 million, while the total number of fatal accidents that had been linked to sudden acceleration was 17. That makes 2.8 deaths per million cars. In 2007 and 2008, a total of 57,216 drivers or passengers died in car accidents in the U.S. Against the population of 300 million, that works out to one death for every 5,244 people.

Now, 2.8 deaths per million Toyotas come to one death for every 357,143 cars. This means, proportionately, that the likelihood of a driver of a Toyota dying in a car crash caused by unintended acceleration is one-seventieth of that of a driver of any car dying in a car crash for any reason.

In his preface to the 2001 edition of his 1988 book, Paulos cites “the Firestone- Ford tire saga” as an example of innumeracy. That 2000 case took three years before the class-action suit was settled, another two years before Firestone and Ford settled their disputes. In 2005, however, some lawsuits were still pending.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.