The Itsy Bitsy Spider Invasion

Morgan O'Rourke


April 1, 2011

Ever since the Toyota controversy began in 2009, reports of auto recalls have become more common. Maybe companies have learned from Toyota's public relations mistakes and have stepped up their efforts to notify the public about vehicle issues. Or maybe the media is just reporting more of these stories. Regardless of whether it is a chicken-or-egg sort of thing, I'm sure we can all appreciate any efforts to keep drivers safe no matter the motivation.

But as with any story that stays in the news for some time, complacency sets in. When Toyota recalled almost two million vehicles in January for a variety of reasons, it didn't have nearly the same impact as previous recalls. Of course, this round wasn't triggered by the tragic deaths that prompted the original recalls, but it could be that a saturation point has been reached regarding these types of stories.

That is, until news broke of one of the strangest, and certainly the creepiest, recalls in recent memory. Last month, Mazda recalled 65,000 Mazda6 sedans in North America after learning that yellow sac spiders had taken to building nests in parts of the car's fuel system. The fear was that the spider's webbing would clog up the ventilation hoses and allow pressure to build up in the fuel tank, resulting in cracks in the tank, fuel leaks and, possibly, a fire. At the time of the recall, 20 infestations had been reported, but only in four-cylinder vehicles in the 2009 and 2010 model years. Those are some picky spiders.

One theory postulated that, since the yellow sac spider supposedly loves the smell of gasoline, the unique dual-vent configuration of the Mazda6 fuel system was attracting the spiders. Other entomologists dismissed this idea, guessing it had more to do with the spider's affinity for small, dark spaces and that, more than likely, the spiders were climbing into the vent hoses in the manufacturing plant before the cars were even assembled.

Although these auto-loving arachnids haven't started any fires, yellow sac spiders are venomous. Their bite won't kill, but it will cause pain, redness and swelling, much like a bee sting. In fact, yellow sac spiders are responsible for a large percentage of the spider bites in the United States. And having one pop up in your car unexpectedly would be quite a driving distraction to say the least.

Admittedly, this story hits close to home. I drive a Mazda (although not the model in question) and I'm not a big fan of spiders so I welcome the company's efforts to eradicate this spider menace before one ends up in my vehicle and I drive off a cliff while trying to fight it to the death. In order to fix the problem, Mazda will inspect and clean out the lines in question and install a spring that will prevent the spider from entering. There's no truth to the rumor that I just made up that they will be making bug spray standard in new models.

But more than just being another strange-but-true story, this recall actually serves as a useful reminder for risk managers. Obviously, it underscores the need to be proactive in protecting customer safety, but that's a lesson inherent in any recall.

No, what this incident shows is that no matter how well prepared you are for what can go wrong, there is always a chance that something unprecedented will happen. After all, it's not like spiders do this all the time -- in fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was unaware of any previous recalls involving pest infestation. So Mazda can be forgiven for not taking spider prevention measures in the first place. But the painful truth is if an accident had occurred, the fact that the issue was unforeseeable would have been of little consolation. Mazda's spider problem is a reminder that risk management is an inexact science and it is in trying to predict the essentially unpredictable that makes it so challenging.

In the comic books, Spider-Man has a spider sense that warns him when danger is imminent. It is a pretty useful ability when it comes to fighting bad guys. I'm sure Mazda's risk managers would have loved a spider sense of their own. Instead, they got spiders.

I would have preferred the superpowers.

Morgan O’Rourke is editor in chief of Risk Management and director of publications for the Risk & Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS)