Winnebago/Stella Award myths, pt. 4

by Walter Olson on August 15, 2005

Reader Gerald Affeldt writes:

I first heard a version of the “Winnebago cruise control” story while I was in the Navy stationed at Whiting Field in Milton, Fla. in 1977. And I’ve heard different versions of it over the years.

The earliest version I heard, as well as a number of later versions, had an ethnic angle. At the time, the U.S. Navy was training pilots for the Shah of Iran, and what with language and customs difference, the trainees weren’t considered technically acute. So the first version of the story I heard was of a supposed Iranian driver. Over the years versions I heard involved a number of other ethnic groups. Just plug in who you wanted.

In the first version I heard, the vehicle was a conversion van. Bed in the back, couple of captain chairs and large mural on the side. Didn’t start hearing motorhome versions till the 90′s. So I guess it’s plug in the popular large vehicle of the time.

In the early versions, the point of the story was just that the driver was too dumb to know cruise control wasn’t the same as an autopilot. I never heard of a lawyer being involved until a few years ago. Guess the story’s age was showing and it needed spicing up.

Most people telling it thought it was true. A friend had seen it in a paper, etc. I guess the whole story works because of the number of stupid people in the world.

For those who came in late, the L.A. Times on Sunday printed a prominent piece on the Winnebago and other “Stella Award” tall tales, which it suggested were “fabrications” spread by the tort reform movement (see Ted’s and my take on the story, as well as our four-year-old debunking of the tales themselves with credit to Snopes). Regarding Mr. Affeldt’s recollections, a few observations:

* You’d think before running an article suggesting that the tales’ wide circulation over the Net reflects a campaign of purposeful disinformation, L.A. Times reporter Myron Levin might have done a little digging into the origins of the tales to find out things like where and when the earliest sightings occur. But there’s scant sign that he did.

* As a visit to the generally excellent urban-legends site Snopes.com will make clear, it’s typical of garden-variety urban legends — the kind whose circulation reflects mere credulity on the part of reader/forwarders, as opposed to a conscious plot to hoodwink the public — that they are older than the tale-tellers realize them to be, and have gone through mutations reflecting what in musicology would be called the folk process.

* To be sure, Mr. Affeldt’s recollections do not conclusively refute the ATLA/L.A. Times thesis that the Winnebago and similar tales have been purposely fabricated. After all, even if there were already an urban legend in wide circulation about a clueless driver’s mistaking cruise control for autopilot, it’s conceivable that the plotters came up with the sly stroke of inserting a lawsuit into the narrative as part of their unceasing efforts to sap public confidence in the U.S. legal system. Of course, it bears repeating that ATLA-’n'-L.A.T. have offered zero evidence of any such thing happening.

* One other thing missing from the L.A. Times account: any showing that the lawsuit-reform groups mentioned, such as ATRA and Common Good, or any similarly prominent group, have in fact circulated the Winnebago/Stella Award stories at all. Credulity being part of the human condition, of course, there are no doubt instances where the newsletter editor of the East Kankakee Citizens for Lawsuit Reform was taken in by a Stella email from his Aunt Fran and passed it along. That the L.A. Times piece does not adduce even one instance of serious backing from such groups should have raised a flag about the quote from Prof. Turley claiming that such stories have been devised with “skill” for purposes of “influencing policy”.

* Thanks to Patterico, Gail Heriot and Southern California Law Blog for linking to our earlier discussion. Among some bloggers of an opposite persuasion, the L.A. Times piece seems to have come as a confirmation of their own dearly held preconceptions on the subject, as with Ezra Klein, John Cole, and Mr. Furious, to some of whose comments sections Ted has paid a visit.