To the People

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Can Stupidity Suddenly Accelerate As Well?

So, as we all know, Toyota cars are death traps. Yes, these seemingly normal cars can suddenly accelerate -- without warning! -- to frightening speeds, even while the drivers try to stop. Something. Must. Be. Done. Or so our fearless lawmakers tell us.

Okay, but, umm, what causes the cars to accelerate? As Jeremy Anwyl, CEO of the car info website, wrote in the Washington Post today, no one has yet shown a mechanical flaw despite vigorous testing:
We tried to re-create the circumstances surrounding some recent incidents. We took the highest-horsepower Toyota Camry to the test track to see whether the brakes could stop a runaway vehicle -- which they can. Next we looked at the Toyota Prius. We found that when the vehicle is accelerating, a simple tap of the transmission shifter into neutral disengages the throttle, and the vehicle coasts to a halt -- even if the brakes are not applied.

What does all this mean? As our testing confirms and government regulators and Toyota have said recently, it is extremely difficult to re-create the out-of-control incidents being reported.
Over at National Review Online, Walter Olson, who runs the outstanding website, argues that the reason may not be technical. It may be because the knuckleheads who are the victims of these "sudden acceleration incidents" causing them by stepping on the gas instead of the brake:
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. (emphasis added)
As Reason's Ron Bailey notes there is a precedent for this kind of consumer scare. It hit the makers of the Audi 5000 in the late 1980s. And it turned out to be completely bogus:
Twenty-five years ago, sudden acceleration fears focused on the Audi 5000. At the time, most experts concluded that the drivers were mistakenly pushing the accelerator when they thought they were applying the brakes. Not surprisingly, pushing an accelerator accelerates a car. But in November 1986, the CBS television program 60 Minutes featured a mom who had run over her kid in her Audi. To illustrate the Audi menace, the CBS program also showed an Audi—rigged with a hidden canister of compressed air—lurching out of control.

By 1989, Audi was a plaintiff in 120 sudden acceleration lawsuits claiming damages amounting to $5 billion. Finally, in 1989, the Canadian government issued a report blaming the sudden acceleration on “driver error.” Two months later, a NHTSA report found the cause to be “pedal misapplication,” a euphemism for driver error.

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