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


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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.

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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 — 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.



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