We know some consumer reporters can be easy marks for overhyped scare stories. But what excuse does a giant insurance company has for trying to knock spare change out of an automaker by endorsing the scare theories in a subrogation suit? [Mary Anne Medina, Claims Magazine] See also: Laura Zois, Maryland Accident Lawyer.
I appeared in this Washington Legal Foundation web video yesterday. I discussed ways in which the rise of online media has helped correct some of the deficiencies of the older media in covering controversies like that over “unintended acceleration”. The other presentation on the video is by Andrew Trask of McGuire Woods and the Class Action Countermeasures blog. Viewing is free but you’ll need to register.
Not for the first (or fifty-first) time, the California paper acts as an uncritical stenographer of Litigation Lobby claims — then waits until paragraph 13 to advise readers that NHTSA, not exactly the friendliest witness these days, backs the automaker’s position on the question of the “black box” data. More: AP.
The Washington Post — unlike some other newspapers we might think of — doesn’t mind letting its editorial stance catch up with the facts on the ground as they appear to NHTSA staff. We’ve been on the story for quite a while.
After criticism for not releasing the results of its probe, the administration concedes that NHTSA has found little or no support for the trial lawyers’ electronic-gremlins theory. [USA Today, WSJ, L.A. Times, earlier here, here, etc.]
Years ago I promised myself that I’d stop wading into comments sections, but my breach of that promise today in a trial-lawyer blog attacking me for pointing out the truth about the bogus Toyota sudden acceleration claims might amuse some readers, and I might as well get a post out of it.
“Are not companies obligated to make the safest vehicle possible?”
The safest vehicle possible is a Sherman tank with a restrictor plate preventing it from exceeding 1 mph, so the answer to your question is “no”—though certainly trial lawyers have an interest in asking you to think manufacturers are doing something wrong when they don’t.
“Until Toyota can identify the exact cause of these accidents (besides the too-convenient driver error) anything and everything is in question and must be investigated.”
I look forward to you writing NHTSA and demanding they investigate if invisible vampires are causing elderly drivers to hit the wrong pedal. After all, anything and everything is in question, and you reject Occam’s Razor when it comes to an alleged electronic defect that simultaneously causes three separate systems to malfunction six times more often for elderly drivers than non-elderly drivers, so why not demand an investigation of the equally unlikely invisible-vampire problem as long as you’re rejecting science?
WSJ (h/t C.W.):
The U.S. Department of Transportation has analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles involved in accidents blamed on sudden acceleration and found that at the time of the crashes, throttles were wide open and the brakes were not engaged, people familiar with the findings said.
In other words, driver error, except in the one-in-a-million instances when a gas pedal was trapped by a poorly-installed floor mat. Will plaintiffs’ lawyers who have been conspiracy-theorizing about a non-existent electronic defect withdraw their class actions and product-liability suits, much less apologize? How about AP and the news media? Don’t count on it. Earlier from me and from Walter.
The quest to do something about the imagined Toyota crisis may result in a federal mandate for all cars to include “brake-override” features that cut off power when the driver hits the brake. Writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Michael Fumento says many cars on the road do already have such a feature — but lawmakers don’t seem overly curious as to whether it’s made a difference.
Michael Fumento warns that the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) “has no category for ‘sudden acceleration,’ merely a ‘speed control’ category.” The result is that many complaints of lack of acceleration can wind up getting counted and cited as if they supported the trial lawyers’ case.
Michael Fumento on “misinformation cascades” [Philadelphia Inquirer]
According to Kelley’s Blue Book, consumers are trending back toward the Japanese maker in their buying plans. [New York Times "Bucks" blog] That’s despite the menace of rays from outer space, as denounced by one anonymous informant to NHTSA. [Detroit Free Press, which has a PDF of the submission from "A Concerned Scientist"]
More: On a more serious note, Holman Jenkins has a good column today [WSJ, sub-only] tracing the key role of bandwagon effects in sudden acceleration consciousness (which is one reason waves of complaints tend to occur in clumps, by carmaker and otherwise). Excerpt:
…In 2001, at least four papers were presented at the annual meeting of the Trial Lawyers Association urging a revival of sudden unintended acceleration litigation, insisting that such cases could prevail in absence of evidence of a defect, and even amid evidence of driver error, simply by harping in front of a jury on a record of “Other Similar Incidents” (OSI).
That’s the roadmap being followed now, as lawyer Randy Roberts told CNBC this week: “Toyota is very good at taking one consumer complaint about sudden unintended acceleration and dissecting it and convincing you that it may have been a floor mat or driver error or a sticky pedal. But when you put all those complaints out on the table, then you can see the big picture. That’s how you connect the dots.”
Huh? The logic here is ridiculous. To wit: 15 examples of X causing Y are proof that something other than X must cause Y.
In 1992, Diana Maychick drove her mother’s Oldsmobile back to Washington Place in Greenwich Village, and got out. Her mother, the 74-year-old Stella Maychick, slid over from the passenger seat to the driver’s seat, readying herself to return to Yonkers. Maycheck, a shorter-than-average woman, suddenly took off in the car, which sped up, ran two stop signs, and tore through Washington Square Park, killing five and maiming several others.
Diana Maychick is now Diana Foote, a restaurant reviewer for a Palm Beach newspaper, and recently recounted the accident, claiming the recent Toyota troubles exonerated her mother.
Which I found fascinating, because I worked on that litigation—and the evidence that Maychick hit the gas instead of the brake was so strong that the plaintiffs’ lawyers abandoned the standard specious “mysterious gremlins caused the car to accelerate” theory and replaced it with a “General Motors knew that drivers were hitting the wrong pedal but didn’t do enough to warn them” theory. I took issue with Foote’s column in a letter to the newspaper.
As for the lawsuit itself, the judge excused everyone in the voir dire who expressed the remotest skepticism about plaintiffs’ theory, and GM settled shortly after the start of trial. One certainly marvels at the chutzpah of the theory of the case, given trial lawyers’ role in trying to persuade the public that driver error couldn’t possibly be to blame.
Pretty much shows that he was faking it, according to a memo in Jalopnik’s hands. Kudos to Michael Fumento for calling it.
And in timely news, a specious $18M sudden acceleration verdict (see our August 2006 coverage) was unanimously reversed by the South Carolina Supreme Court after they threw out junk-science testimony theorizing that electromagnetic interference with the cruise control caused the sudden acceleration. Passengers in the crash that wore their seatbelts were uninjured, but the unbelted driver was paralyzed. The plaintiff has the option of a new trial. (Sonya Watson v. Ford Motor Company, h/t L Nettles comment).
Don’t miss Walter’s phenomenal overview of the Toyota sudden acceleration frenzy, and its remarkable similarity’s to last generation’s Audi frenzy. At today’s NRO.
My Toyota op-ed is going viral, with dozens of retweets, and listings on the front pages of Hot Air and reddit—not to mention an Instalink. And Alex Tabarrok tests my numbers at Marginal Revolution.
Update: Don’t miss Megan McArdle’s comprehensive take.
I expand on my earlier post in today’s Washington Examiner, including my skepticism of the conventional reporting on the James Sikes incident.
Michael Fumento is also on the case on his blog and in the LA Times; see also Richard Schmidt in the New York Times on the last generation of sudden acceleration.
Update: Fumento goes farther on the James Sikes story than I did. I also found the idea that Sikes reached for the accelerator while driving implausible after trying to repeat the experiment in a (parked!) Prius.