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Exorcising Toyota's Demons

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Exorcising Toyota's Demons

National Review Online March 15, 2010
Urban PolicyOther

Reviewing the history of tort-bar opportunism and media malfeasance should dispel the Great Toyota Panic of 2010.

You know those unseen and undetectable gremlins that hide in Toyota’s electronic throttle controls? Turns out they have it in for elderly drivers. The Los Angeles Times has compiled a list of 56 fatal incidents over 19 years purportedly involving unintended Toyota acceleration, and according to my Overlawyered co-blogger Ted Frank — in a Thursday analysis refined and extended the next day by Megan McArdle of The Atlantic — the age of the driver can be publicly ascertained in a little more than half the instances. That median age turns out to be 60 — that is to say, half the drivers were that old or older. By contrast, only 16 percent of general auto fatalities in 2008 occurred with a driver 60 or older behind the wheel. Whatever is causing Avalons, Highlanders, and Tundras to misbehave is largely bypassing drivers in their twenties and thirties and instead homing in on drivers old enough to remember the Eisenhower era.

For those who’ve been setting up the Japanese automaker as the latest symbol of heartless capitalism, it’s been a bewildering few days. On Wednesday the media jumped hard for the story of a man who frantically called 911 while his Prius ran away on a San Diego freeway (outstandingly gullible CBS News coverage here). Before long observers had begun poking holes in the story, and colorful details on the man’s earlier doings have been emerging all weekend. On Thursday, meanwhile, the New York Times — whose news columns had helped set the tone for the panic with accusatory coverage — ran what was actually a surprisingly good op-ed advancing the possibility that most of the Toyota cases will turn out to be the result of . . . driver error.

Driver error? You could have spent hours watching the stacked congressional hearings, or the breathless, America-in-crisis coverage on NBC, with no inkling that hitting the gas pedal instead of the brake was any sort of major factor. Certainly the impresarios of the Great Toyota Panic v the members of Congress and their staffs, the TV producers, and above all the consumer advocates with their close trial-lawyer ties — were not at all keen to explore that topic.

Through weeks of Toyota-flaying coverage, these voices — united in Demanding That Action Be Taken even if no one could quite say what was wrong with the cars — seldom acknowledged that unintended acceleration in automobiles is a subject with a long history. Each year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration receives complaints of this sort from owners of all brands of cars; big makers other than Toyota get a goodly share. The volume of complaints ebbs and flows from year to year for reasons that seem to have less to do with cars’ technical features than with media coverage and mass psychology; thus a scare over a given model that grips one country may never reach a second country in which an identical model is sold.

By far the most famous episode of sudden-acceleration panic is the 1986 Audi episode, which took years to fizzle out: Regulators in the United States, Japan, and Canada pronounced that they could find no explanation for the accidents other than “pedal misapplication” or, more bluntly, driver error. The parallels with the Toyota affair — starting, but not ending, with the tendency of acceleration incidents to hit older drivers — are numerous and continue to multiply.

With Audi, as with Toyota, the anecdotes seemed compelling. Attractive families, who spoke well and obviously believed in their cause, had lost loved ones to horrendous accidents. No one, least of all the miserable execs from the automaker, wanted to go on camera to contradict them, even though (as it turned out) their cases often failed to convince juries when things eventually got to court.

With Audi, as with Toyota, massive publicity fed on itself. As the scare went national, the number of reported acceleration incidents soared, partly because newly wary customers began reporting incidents they might otherwise not have bothered to report, partly because families (and lawyers) seized on the acceleration theory to explain older crashes. In both cases, newly filed reports on older accidents ensured that the overall numbers would leap almost overnight in a newsworthy way, thus keeping the cycle going.

With Audi, as with Toyota, the panic was met with far more skepticism in the specialized enthusiast and engineering press — places like Car and Driver, Popular Mechanics, and their online equivalents — than in the general press and on Capitol Hill. Not that seasoned automotive writers necessarily were in a rush to dismiss the reports; there’s always a first time with emerging hazards, and problems like misplaced floor mats or sticky pedals might indeed need to be checked out. But the general feeling was that familiar old causes of accidents should be well explored before positing exotic new ones.

And that brought up, in both episodes, the question of why brakes had failed to overcome the car’s forward motion. In all American cars, now as well as then, brakes firmly applied will readily overpower an accelerator at full throttle. In theory a driver might burn out the brakes by hesitant or inconsistent efforts to fight the surge, but seldom if ever were brakes actually found to be burned out in this way after accidents.

With Audi, as with Toyota, the scare targeted vehicles with some of the lowest fatality rates on the road — indeed, vehicles that might often be chosen precisely for their safety by risk-averse buyers. So rare are sudden-acceleration events that the purported risk — even as it touched off a nationwide media frenzy — was smaller than many other risks drivers accept as routine, such as that of choosing a slightly longer commute to work. Indeed, so minute was the supposed risk that if rattled owners at the height of the panic decided to leave a suspect Audi or Toyota undriven in the garage, in favor of using their family’s second vehicle, they were very likely increasing their risk — since that second vehicle was unlikely to be as safe overall as the demon Audi/Toyota.

With Audis, and in other acceleration scares affecting GM and other companies, we know that older drivers are not the only group disproportionately likely to be involved in a runaway. Others include drivers who are short in stature, who are unfamiliar with the vehicle (parking-lot attendants, new buyers), and who are taking off from a stopped position or backing up. Publicly available reports do not yet indicate whether the Toyota crashes fit all of these patterns; McArdle does note, however, that the L.A. Times compilation of fatal accidents seems to contain a striking number of drivers who were immigrants.

Why doesn’t the mainstream press — okay, in particular the networks and liberal newspapers — do a better job of covering these issues? One reason is that — this is unchanged since the 1970s — both are willing to take their lead on coverage from the same trial-lawyer-linked consumer groups that help Henry Waxman to orchestrate his hearings. Indeed, some of the very same figures who pushed Audi’s supposed guilt 25 years ago, such as Clarence Ditlow of the Ralph Nader-“founded Center for Auto Safety, have been showcased both in the press and on Capitol Hill in recent weeks, usually with scant mention of their long records of inaccurate pro-litigation advocacy.

That isn’t the only way in which the networks have failed their viewers. The widely recalled low point of the Audi controversy came when CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a grossly unfair hatchet job on the automaker, complete with a bogus simulation rigged up by an expert witness working with lawyers suing Audi. This time around, it was the turn of ABC’s Brian Ross, who used, yes, an expert witness hired by litigators suing Toyota to rig up a supposed simulation of electronic failure. (Toyota promptly showed that you could get the same silly, artificial result by hooking up other automakers’ vehicles in the same way.) Matt Hardigree of Jalopnik called the results “ridiculous” and a “hoax,” while Gawker — noticing some stealthily falsified footage of tachometer results — headlined its coverage “How ABC News’ Brian Ross Staged His Toyota Death Ride” and “ABC News’ Toyota Test Fiasco.”

Alas, this is nothing new. Back in 1993, I wrote a piece for National Review (“It didn’t start with Dateline NBC”) exploring how the famous hidden-incendiary-device scandal that publicly disgraced NBC News was part of a long tradition of less-than-honest network coverage. Ten years later, I reported (in my 2003 book The Rule of Lawyers) that not only did the networks seem to have learned nothing from the Dateline NBC fiasco, they had actually gone back to using some of the same expert witnesses, consumer groups, and staging techniques that had gotten them in trouble in the first place.

These days, online critics — like Gawker and Jalopnik, Ted Frank and Megan McArdle, Michael Fumento and NRO’s Henry Payne — can correct the networks’ misreporting within hours, rather than days or months. Whether or not that comes as any comfort to beleaguered Toyota, it’s a definite improvement for the rest of us.

This piece originally appeared in National Review Online