Mitsubishi Montero and SUA: A Public Safety Issue
NOTHING ELICITS sharper visceral reactions than seeing a vehicle seemingly running amuck, and ramming into other cars, structures and people. There has been a flood of these images – in both video and photographs – in Philippine social media of late, but with one car brand and model standing out: the Mitsubishi Montero Sport, a popular sport-utility (SUV) vehicle. Since described as “sudden unintended acceleration” or SUA, the incidents of seemingly uncontrolled acceleration have resulted in injury, damages to property and even death.
Reports of these incidents first surfaced on social media, particularly Facebook. In November, 2015 more alleged victims came out to complain. More personal accounts, photographs and videos followed. Not far behind were conflicting opinions from Montero owners, other motorists, and the public.
SUA was clearly a public safety issue, something about which the print and broadcast media should have shown more interest. And because much of the information initially came from social media, it also posed a challenge to journalists to go beyond just repeating what was said or shown online. On both counts, the press performed inadequately.
Consistent, But Not Comprehensive
CMFR monitored the broadsheets Philippine Daily Inquirer, Manila Bulletin, and The Philippine Star; and primetime newscasts 24 Oras (GMA-7), Aksyon (TV5), Network News (CNN Philippines) and TV Patrol (ABS-CBN 2), as well as selected programs and websites from November 22 to December 18 2015.
ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol was the most consistent in reporting on the SUA incidents. GMA-7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s Aksyon and CNN Philippines’ Network News also aired their own reports but these were very few and far between. The broadsheets and other print publications published only a handful of reports and even these reflected what had already been shown in the newscasts or posted online.
TV Patrol’s coverage featured videos of Monteros experiencing SUAs, as well as interviews and accounts of complainants who have since pressed charges against Mitsubishi Motors Philippines Corporation (MMPC). As the complaints gained more attention, additional victims – encouraged by lawyers Charlie Tumaru and Bernardino Bernardo, who said they were also SUA victims – surfaced and joined the class suit against MMPC.
TV Patrol interviewed a number of resource persons – a motoring journalist, a motoring expert, and an associate dean of the college of engineering of one university – but its reports failed to give a definitive explanation of SUA.
Motoring magazine Top Gear Philippines (TGP) took a strong position on the matter, declaring that SUA is mainly caused by driver error. On November 29, TV Patrol aired a report quoting statements TGP posted on its Facebook page and juxtaposed these with the contrary opinions of some of the complainants. Unfortunately, TV Patrol did not interview TGP so it could explain its position, despite the fact that the network had apparently set an interview with TGP editor Vernon Sarne. The network stood him up, Sarne wrote in his column, which is a pity because it could have been an opportunity for TV Patrol to enlighten its viewers about TGP’s views. After all, Sarne and TGP seem to know what they’re talking about.
TV Patrol consistently aired reports featuring similar incidents in the days leading to the MMPC’s press conference on December 1 and the Department of Trade and Industry’s (DTI) hearing the next day, up to the third week of the month. But its reporting waned after the DTI announced, on December 17, the results of their two-week investigation in which the agency, in lieu of a recall as proposed by some quarters, suggested that a third party should investigate these SUA incidents.
Hit and Miss
The overall coverage lacked adequate information and clarification on SUA. More relevant information only came to light after the MMPC press conference and the DTI hearing. Neither the broadsheets nor the broadcast media performed as expected on this public safety issue.
Perhaps it is not surprising that Top Gear Philippines emerged as the more authoritative voice on the matter. It has to do both with its own expertise and the mainstream press’s shortcomings. For instance, the few stories that the press published identified the probable causes of SUA. These include “pedal entrapment,” “pedal misapplication,” “sticky pedal” and mechanical or electronic failure. But the news media hardly explained these terms. On the other hand, in an article about the MMCP press conference, TGP took the extra step that mainstream journalists should have taken and defined or simplified these terms.
The coverage of the issue was also incomplete. Not much attention was given to the fact that SUA is not a new phenomenon. The press also focused almost exclusively on the Montero Sport, failing to investigate other cases of SUA or similar issues with other car brands other than Mitsubishi. (A report by CNN Philippines did tackle this angle but the cases happened overseas.)
Automotive journalist James Deakin, in an interview by Luchi Cruz-Valdes in TV5’s ReAksyon December 5, did address in slightly more detail the information mentioned by the CNN Philippines report. Deakin discussed the probable causes of SUA and how human error plays a big role in it. He also provided a backgrounder on the 2010 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which found no vehicle-based cause for unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles.
SUAs are a public safety concern that deserves utmost attention by mainstream press, not just by niche publications like TGP. While the press did bring attention to the issue, the reporting was mostly superficial and reactive. More independent research could have given depth to the coverage. Moreover, as with previous issues that originated from the social media, the press failed to follow-through, or to even bring the very technical discourse to a level the public would understand and appreciate.
These shortcomings notwithstanding, the coverage highlighted the need for a government body similar to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration dedicated to setting and enforcing safety standards and investigating safety concerns on vehicles. The DTI, as this issue has shown, is simply not equipped to do this task. Unfortunately, the reports did not adequately discuss this angle. Given that lives and limbs are at stake, addressing this aspect should have been among the concerns of the coverage.