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Editor's Notebook

No Big Deal?

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Mallory Eddy’s stop was at the bottom of a long, steep hill on two-lane Peterboro Road in Smithville, N.Y., a quiet little burg near Oneida. It was a sunny and clear late-May day when the school bus pulled up hard against the right berm to let three riders off.

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The cheerful, chatty second grader was the first down the stairwell. Two schoolmates followed a few steps behind, a precious few feet that saved their lives.

Mallory probably never even saw the 1989 Ford Tempo that ripped through her tiny body. The bus driver saw it, though, as it came flying up from behind. He was not quick enough to save Mallory, but was fast enough to slam the bus doors closed in the faces of her friends, preventing their exit.

The car came down the hill at what was described as a “high rate of speed.” The brakes failed, the then 17-year-old driver told police, and he couldn’t get the car stopped before it would’ve rear-ended the car right behind the school bus. Instead, he veered to avoid a collision and tried to get around on the right berm. Right into Mallory.

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Seven years earlier, Syracuse lawyer John Papworth, his wife and their two children, were on their way to Washington, D.C., for a quick family vacation. The 51-year-old father was heading south on I-81 near Frackville, Pa., when the right rear tire on his 1993 Land Rover suddenly blew out.

The SUV cut sharply and then tumbled violently several times before coming to rest in the northbound lanes. Papworth was ejected from the vehicle and died instantly. His wife, son and daughter were injured, but alive.

Other than senseless tragedy, these two unconnected incidents do have one very common denominator: vehicle inspections.

Now 18, the Oneida man faces multiple charges: criminally negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, passing a stopped school bus and driving with inadequate brakes. He claims the brakes had been inspected just a few weeks before the tragedy.

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Indicted, too, was the manager of the Monro Muffler shop that had inspected the brakes. The Madison County DA said the manager conducted and approved the inspection. He faces charges of criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment. A charge of falsifying business records was dropped.

Earlier this year, the Syracuse lawyer’s family accepted a $5 million settlement, most of which will be paid by the Midas Muffler store that had “inspected” the Land Rover just a day before the crash.

If he had done the inspection, according to testimony, the technician would have seen a growing problem with the tire. Instead, the tech admitted to “sticker slapping” the Land Rover – putting an inspection sticker on it without even touching the SUV.

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I have heard some of my colleagues in the office here discussing these cases. Their first inclination is to defend the techs. “This is just another case of people blaming shops when something goes wrong,” they say. “People just don’t take care of their cars.”

To be fair, I have railed about the lack of personal responsibility in this country countless times. But the responsibility thing cuts both ways, a point my fellow editors missed.

This is not about what did or didn’t happen; we’ll probably never know.

This is all about trust.

If you were so inclined, it’s easy to pull the wool over a customer’s eyes. Safety regs keep them out of the service bays, after all, so techs can do just about anything, right or wrong, without probing by the vehicle owner. Even if customers were able to watch the work being performed, most would have no idea what was going on.

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I’m not suggesting that any of you – or your techs – would do anything wrong. I like to think that Tire Review readers are better than that.

But when a well-kept, high-end SUV comes in for an “inspection,” it’s plausible that an overloaded tech might give it nothing more than a quick eyeball. When inspecting the brakes on a well-worn car, it’s plausible that something could get missed.

No criminal intent, perhaps, but maybe the tech didn’t think it was that big a deal.

Customers trust you to take all possible care with their lives. They trust that you and your staff will do the job right. More importantly, they trust that they won’t become the unintended victim of “it’s no big deal.”

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Remind yourself and your people that there are no shortcuts to trust. Remind them what happens when they think nothing will happen.

Tell them about Mallory.

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