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.
Toyota has more recent model cars on the road than any other manufacturer. It would not be unusual to discover that at least a plurality of accidents are from drivers of Toyotas. This includes accidents in which there are fatalities. (Nothing below is said about non-fatal accidents, which are more numerous.)
The Los Angeles Times has compiled a list of all accidents with fatalities involving a Toyota (including its Lexus model), in which the accident was reported to the NHTSA as a possible case of sudden acceleration.
I did not use McArdle's spreadsheet, but referred directly to the Times's compilation.
Since 1992 — there was one in that year; the remainder are from 2003 or later — there have been 41 fatal accidents reported to the NHTSA blamed on sudden acceleration and Toyota. In some cases, the drivers were killed; in others, the drivers killed either their passengers or people external to their car. Many of the accidents occurred with vehicles which were not on Toyota's recall list.
To pick a report at random: Ella Mae Braswell, 85, killed herself and her husband while driving a Camry off a highway into a tree. There were no witnesses. The police could not discover why the car left the road. Her son complained, "There was not any indication that she tried slowing down." This incident was reported to the NHTSA only after Braswell's son heard of Toyota's difficulties.
Another: Koua Fong Lee, 32, was exiting a freeway with his Camry and crashed into a car in front of him, killing its three occupants. "A Minnesota jury convicted Lee of vehicular homicide, concluding his foot had been on the gas and not the brake pedal. A judge sentenced him to eight years in prison." Lee's lawyer later heard of Toyota's troubles and is appealing. "It seems to be blatantly obvious that [Lee's crash is] an accelerator issue," he said.
One weird theme was the number of reported "accidents" which had no driver's names. For example, one report filed in Buras, Louisiana, in 2007, alleged a Camry suddenly accelerated into another car and that both exploded. Yet "Louisiana public safety officers report no fatalities involving a Camry in their state on that date."
In five of the 41 crashes reported, no police record could be found verifying that there was an accident. None of these crashes had driver's names supplied to the NHTSA. That leaves 36 accidents which were verified.
Families from three of the incidents declined to sue, stating variously, "We don't have the money or resources to try to fight Toyota," "[We have] no intention of suing," and "It would've been the giant versus the little guy." These three cases involved driving in the rain on a highway, a car backing out of a parking space, and driving out of a lot into traffic.
The claims of not having enough money to sue are odd, especially in these litigious states, where any number of lawyers would have gladly taken the cases on contingency. The suspicious nature of the crashes might have convinced the family members that blame could not be laid off on Toyota.
That leaves 33 accidents. In seven of these, police reports directly blamed the drivers. Citations, judgments, even criminal trials resulted, as in Lee's case. Family members, drivers, and lawyers later sought to blame sudden acceleration.
If we accept the police reports, we have 26 suspicious cases left. One happened in 1992 in a 4Runner, long before Toyota was said to have systematic problems. That leaves 25.
Of these, 10 had no witnesses; family members either sued or reported the incident only after hearing of Toyota's troubles. In one of these, the driver was on the way to the hospital to receive treatment for bipolar disorder. Two ran stop signs and crashed; one was shifting to drive after backing up. Others drove off highways and hit something off the road.
Where it could be determined, the ages of these drivers was 34, 58, mid 60s, 72, 79, and 85 (the bipolar driver's age is unknown). Older drivers, of course, are more accident prone.
We're down to 15 suspect cases. In one of these, the driver was later determined to have suffered a stroke while at the wheel. That leaves 14 incidents.
One of these is a complete unknown: it is a bare report to NHTSA with no details whatsoever.
Now 13. Three of these involved accidents while parking or while driving out of a parking spot. The ages of these drivers was 68, late 60s, and 83. These kinds of accidents were the very kind attributed to operator error in previous NHTSA investigations.
Two of the 10 left had definite brake problems. One driver, before he crashed and died, called 911 and said that he had no brakes. Another had been serviced a week before for bad brakes.
We have eight remaining, and none fits into an obvious pattern. The attorney of one said his client was unable to shift to neutral. Another victim's wife, who heard her husband "drifted into oncoming traffic," decided to sue. A third driver was seen to be driving erratically, drove into the breakdown lane, and eventually crashed.
An 18-year-old crashed after taking a curve too fast. His dad said, "It's a very dangerous, tight corner" that his son "knew" about. Another driver crashed into a lake: a week before she had removed the vehicle's floor mats. Police said the car was going 47 MPH when it broke through a guard rail.
That leaves two cases which are the most suspicious. Sixty-six year-old Noriko Uno sped down an avenue and struck a telephone pole: her parking brake was found to have been pulled. Finally, Jean Bookout (age unknown) accelerated her Camry into an embankment after losing control, according to a passenger she had with her.
Who's to Blame?
Absolutely none of this proves that all or most crashes were caused by driver error, circumstance, bad brakes, or any other reason. It is possible that each of these fatal accidents was attributable to sudden acceleration, itself the result of some mysterious, as yet undiagnosed, flaw in the design of Toyota's cars.
But given the enormous number of claims made to the NHTSA, the media's propensity to swarm and exaggerate, and the nature of these 41 accidents — many more plausibly attributable to driver error than to mechanical failure — it is likely that Toyota is receiving a bum deal.