Sudden Acceleration or Creeping Fear?

Just look at these headlines!

  • "Inquiry on Auto Acceleration Expanded by U .S.," New York Times
  • "Cars That Speed Up Mysteriously Spark Bitter Dispute Over Cause," Wall Street Journal
  • "Runaway Cars," Detroit News

And how about these?

  • "Car Plows into Park, Killing 3 & Injuring Dozens," New York Times
  • "Car Kills Woman At Market," Post-Standard
  • "Sudden Acceleration May Be the Cause of Recent Accidents...," Corporate Crime Reporter

Boy, doesn't Toyota have problems?

Maybe not. That first set of headlines was from an earlier "epidemic" of sudden accelerations thought to be caused by Ford automobiles. The second set was blamed on Audi.

These sudden — then called "unintended" — accelerations happened in the mid-1980s to early 1990s. They were so popular that CBS's 60 Minutes, in a now infamous segment, "televised a sensational demonstration in which a rigged Audi 5000 was coaxed into accelerating without any hint of pressure on the gas pedal." They later had to issue a "correction."

Complaints of unintended acceleration to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) were not unusual and were associated with cars of almost every make and model. But after the media reported a cluster of accidents involving first Fords, then Audis, more complaints about those cars were subsequently received.

The unintended accelerations were thought to be caused by everything from electromagnetic interference to sticking gas pedals. But the NHTSA investigated and found: "The major cause appears to have been drivers' unknowingly stepping on the accleratator [sic] instead of the brake pedal."

This did not convince the lawyers, who, smelling Audi's blood in the water, went into a feeding frenzy of lawsuits. During the crisis, Audi sales fell to one-third their previous levels.

A history of the legal circus is recounted in Peter Huber's Galileo's Revenge: Junk Science In The Courtroom.

And Now For Something Completely the Same

Jump forward twenty years, and not much has changed. Mike Allen of Popular Mechanics says that "in the last decade, there were about 24,000 customer complaints [to NHTSA] about [sudden acceleration] involving almost every major automaker."

Yet the media concentrates solely on Toyota. Their reports are familiar and formulaic: "John Doe, a man of men, loving husband and father of six, bipartisan lover of cats, was found wrapped around a tree. Doe drove a Toyota."

By the time you've finished reading of Doe's heroic life, and the grotesque suffering he underwent at the hands of his runaway automobile, you are ready to burn down the nearest Toyota dealership. You never pause to consider that Doe's accident might have been his own fault.

Media panics follow a cycle: they start small, build to a crescendo, then descend to absurdity. We might be in that last stage already. Take James Sikes. He's the guy who claimed his Prius could not be stopped as it barreled down a California highway. But the more light exposed on Sikes, the smellier his story becomes.

But does Toyota have a systematic problem? Are its cars prone to sudden, uncontrollable acceleration? Or is this yet another in an endless string of media-induced scares?

Toyota has recalled several of its models. It has admitted that its floor mats in some models are not ideally placed such that they might become lodged under the accelerators. They have also admitted quirks in the electronic throttle controllers of some makes.

But that does not mean that these flaws are the cause of all accidents involving Toyota cars. As automobile writer Mike Allen has shown, mechanical or electrical failures are unlikely suspects in most accidents.