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The Argument Against Toyota Media Hysteria

Trial lawyers, media, and old people, oh my!

1:30 PM, Mar 12, 2010 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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If you listen beyond the media hysteria and Congressional flagellation of Toyota, you might just hear an intriguing buzz from folks involved in "sudden acceleration" cases of the past, many of which turned out to be bogus.

Theodore Frank, a lawyer familiar with "sudden acceleration" cases against GM in the '90s and Audi in the '80s, warns against the potent mixture of media hysteria, class-action lawyer avarice, and a mysterious electronic malfunction no one is able to put a finger on:

But one shouldn’t believe the hype.  We went through this a generation ago with the Audi 5000 and other autos accused of sudden acceleration, and, again, mysterious unknowable car components were supposedly at fault...

Back then, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) spent millions studying the issue.  They found that sudden acceleration was several times more likely among elderly drivers than young drivers, and much more frequent among the very short or someone who had just gotten into a vehicle.

Electromagnetic rays don’t discriminate by age and height, which suggests very much that human factors were at play: in other words, pedal misapplication.  A driver would step on the wrong pedal, panic when the car did not perform as expected, continue to mistake the accelerator for the brake, and press down on the accelerator even harder.

We're seeing that patter again today.

Richard Scmidt, writing in the New York Times, also has experience studying "sudden acceleration":

I looked into more than 150 cases of unintended acceleration in the 1980s, many of which became the subject of lawsuits against automakers. In those days, Audi, like Toyota today, received by far the most complaints. (I testified in court for Audi on many occasions. I have not worked for Toyota on unintended acceleration, though I did consult for the company seven years ago on another matter.)

In these cases, the problem typically happened when the driver first got into the car and started it. After turning on the ignition, the driver would intend to press lightly on the brake pedal while shifting from park to drive (or reverse), and suddenly the car would leap forward (or backward). Drivers said that continued pressing on the brake would not stop the car; it would keep going until it crashed. Drivers believed that something had gone wrong in the acceleration system, and that the brakes had failed.

But when engineers examined these vehicles post-crash, they found nothing that could account for what the drivers had reported.

If the "smart pedal" solution proposed by President Obama becomes a requirement for all car manufacturers, it will only work in those cases in which there really is a mechanical or electronic malfunction, and no operator error. Schmidt is of the mind that that won't do much good except revealing just how many of these incidents really are operator error.Frank notes the ages of drivers in Toyota crashes, for which we have that information:

18, 21, 22*, 32, 34, 44, 45, 47, 56, 57, 58, 60, 61, 63, 66, 68, 71**, 72, 72, 77, 79, 83, 85, 89.

*Passenger victim was 22 and “friend” of driver.

**Passenger victim was 71 and married to husband-driver for 46 years.

The median age is 60.5; the majority of drivers are 60 or older; a third are older than 70. And I left out the case of a driver who was the son of a 94-year-old victim rather than guesstimate his age to be 65. That looks suspiciously like the makeup of Audi sudden acceleration cases, and a lot like driver error to me. Color me skeptical. Very very skeptical.

And, Michael Fumento documents the number of crashes and fatalities compared with Toyota's overall safety record, and the saftey records of other manufacturers:

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