Ray LaHood: Unsafe at Any Speed
The Scrapbook invites you on a trip down memory lane—a slightly harrowing place, about a year ago, but well worth the journey for a little lesson in the way things work. Remember the Toyota Crisis of 2010? It was (statistically speaking) one of the principal stories of the year, commanding network news time and dominating the front pages of America’s newspapers. And the news was frightening: Electronic devices used in Toyota gas pedals were accelerating “spontaneously,” prompting cars to lurch forward at uncontrollable speeds, causing untold hazards to millions of Americans who, in their innocence, own and drive Toyotas.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that “Toyotas are unsafe,” and the Democratic Congress swung into action. Multiple hearings were held in which Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) not only featured anecdotes of lethal acceleration, but accused Toyota executives of lying about the problem and deliberately concealing what they knew. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) referred to Toyotas as “killing machines.” The nation’s leading newspapers, news magazines, and television networks ran numerous stories on the killing-machine theme; ABC’s Brian Ross concocted footage for the purpose. Toyota was fined a record $48.8 million for what the Obama administration considered its inadequate response to the crisis—three recalls totaling some 12 million vehicles—and Toyota’s stock price and market share declined.
Well, as Emily Litella used to say on Saturday Night Live, “Nevermind.” After an exhaustive ten-month investigation by Ray LaHood’s Transportation Department, assisted by NASA engineers, the United States government has officially concluded that there is no evidence—no evidence whatsoever—of any mechanical or electronic defect in Toyotas that would cause sudden, unintentional acceleration. No killing machines, no Watergate-style corporate cover-up—and no comment, of course, from Henry Waxman or Bobby Rush. Secretary LaHood did insist, for the record, that his department’s findings never suggested the possibility of “human error” in generating this manufactured crisis—he prefers the delightful technical term “pedal misapplication”—but he did acknowledge that “Toyota vehicles are safe to drive.”
Which must be cold comfort for Toyota, the Japanese-based manufacturer of safe, efficient, high-quality, popular automobiles for the American market for several decades. Nevertheless, The Scrapbook has conducted its own exhaustive investigation—with no help from NASA!—and reached a few conclusions about this extraordinary episode.
First, it seems clear that the Obama administration’s decision to go after Toyota—that is, to throw the full weight of the federal government into the cause of injuring a successful, law-abiding, and profitable business enterprise—was taken in tandem with the government’s financial takeover of General Motors. There’s a Chicago-style logic at play here: The recovery of a bankrupt GM was never guaranteed, but the destruction of a principal competitor couldn’t hurt.
Second, given the tone and tenor of the congressional hearings, this was clearly Democratic special-interest politics at work. Among Toyota’s harshest critics on Capitol Hill were former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head Joan Claybrook and Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety, whose mission was not only to saddle the manufacturer with additional burdensome regulations but to set the stage for years of litigation against Toyota. The tort bar was actively soliciting clients, and Toyota was looking at an endless supply of acceleration “victims,” class-action settlements, and John Edwards-style litigators.
Which demonstrates, in The Scrapbook’s estimation, two inconvenient truths about life in today’s America. One is that, politically speaking, if a certain administration decides it doesn’t like you, it can call upon the full resources of the federal government to make your life, at the least, deeply unpleasant. And second, automotively speaking, when a disproportionate number of “unintended acceleration” complainants turn out to be senior citizens, it is possible—just possible—that the cause is something other than a faulty electronic system.
UPDATE: Olivia Alair, press secretary at the Department of Transportation, writes in to say: