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Toyota Crash Data Points to Driver Error

Let the rehabilitation begin.

6:03 PM, Jul 14, 2010 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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One study calculates Toyota lost $250 million in brand equity (about 1/4 of what BP's lost in the oil spill) during the media and Congressional furor over its alleged problems with "sudden acceleration." But a new study, conducted by the federal government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggests the once-dominant car company didn't deserve all of its bad press:

The U.S. Department of Transportation has analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles involved in accidents blamed on sudden acceleration and found that the throttles were wide open and the brakes weren't engaged at the time of the crash, people familiar with the findings said.

The early results suggest that some drivers who said their Toyotas and Lexuses surged out of control were mistakenly flooring the accelerator when they intended to jam on the brakes.

Toyota is still culpable for problems with "sticky" accelerators and floor mat issues, but overall, the results of the study are reminiscent of a similar "sudden acceleration" scare with the Audi 5000 in 1989. That scare was also shown to be driver error in a NHTSA study.

The Toyota findings appear to support Toyota's position that sudden-acceleration reports involving its vehicles weren't caused by electronic glitches in computer-controlled throttle systems, as some safety advocates and plaintiffs' attorneys have alleged. More than 100 people have sued the car maker over crashes they claim were the result of faulty electronics.

"In spite of our investigations, we have not actually been able yet to find a defect" in electronic throttle-control systems, Mr. Smith told the scientific panel, which is looking into potential causes of sudden acceleration.

"We're bound and determined that if it exists, we're going to find it," he added. "But as yet, we haven't found it."

There were precious few who questioned the "sudden acceleration" narrative, so busy was everyone flagellating a large corporation and doing flashy, fake reenactments of "sudden acceleration" crashes.

But those who know "sudden acceleration" hysteria best— those caught up in the lawsuits post-Audi scare— studied the data and suggested driver error and media hysteria might be the actual problem. I wrote about the "Argument against Toyota media hysteria" in March:

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.

I wonder how much coverage the NHTSA study results will get in comparison to the original accusations? I've been telling people about the possibility of driver error for months, and they mostly think I'm a conspiracy theorist, illustrating how deeply ingrained the media's first take on this story is.

Kudos to Michael Fumento, Theodore Frank, Richard Schmidt and Megan McArdle for staying above the ritual freak-out. It should be noted that Toyota also didn't do itself that many favors with its early p.r. response, but that doesn't justify the huge price it has paid thanks to a perfect storm of unexamined data, media hype, and salivating class-action litigators.

So, as a solid to Toyota, I offer the first in a series of "Every Toyota Has a Story," ads, which are part of the brand's rehabilitation, and which I found kind of delightful:

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