'Sudden Acceleration' Evidence Against Toyota Weakens Under Examination

March 13th, 2010 11:59 PM

Two reports linked by Instapundit earlier today demonstrate at a macro and micro level how weak the claim that Toyota has deliberately jeopardized consumer safety in connection with "sudden acceleration" complaints may ultimately turn out to be.

The macro piece comes from Megan McArdle (pictured at left; "How Real are the Defects in Toyota's Cars?") at her blog at the Atlantic. The magazine's business and economics editor dissected case-by-case detail originally compiled by the Los Angeles Times, which was also analyzed to an extent by Washington Examiner op-ed writer and Overlawyered blogger Ted Frank, to make important points about the likelihood of driver error in many of them.

The micro item comes from Michael Fumento, whose Forbes column takes apart the recent James Sikes "sudden acceleration" incident in California as it rips the establishment media for its total lack of skepticism about the driver's claims and his credibility.

First, to McArdle, who also has nicely done graphs at her post:

One of the great mysteries of the Toyota debacle is why Toyota ignored the complaints for so long.

... (The company's) behavior becomes a bit more explicable when you consider this argument from Ted Frank, who wrote:

"In the 24 cases where driver age was reported or readily inferred, the drivers included those of the ages 60, 61, 63, 66, 68, 71, 72, 72, 77, 79, 83, 85, 89--and I'm leaving out the son whose age wasn't identified, but whose 94-year-old father died as a passenger."

"... These "electronic defects" apparently discriminate against the elderly, just as the sudden acceleration of Audis and GM autos did before them. (If computers are going to discriminate against anyone, they should be picking on the young, who are more likely to take up arms against the rise of the machines and future Terminators)."

... I was interested in Frank's argument, so I took a look at the LA Times article, which is really admirably thorough. Here are the results, categorized into a nifty, though not necessarily particularly useful, spreadsheet. I went one further than Frank, tracking down the ages of all but a couple of the named drivers.

Several things are striking. First, the age distribution really is extremely skewed. The overwhelming majority are over 55.

Here's what else you notice: a slight majority of the incidents involved someone either parking, pulling out of a parking space, in stop and go traffic, at a light or stop sign . . . in other words, probably starting up from a complete stop.

In many of the other cases, we don't really know what happened, because there were no witnesses of exactly when the car started to run away.

... At any rate, when you look at these incidents all together, it's pretty clear why Toyota didn't investigate this "overwhelming evidence" of a problem: they look a lot like typical cases of driver error. I don't know that all of them are. But I do know that however advanced Toyota's electronics are, they're not yet clever enough to be able to pick on senior citizens.

Fumento's takedown of the recent James Sikes incident leaves those who want to claim that the incident is legitimate virtually nowhere to hide, and should be read in full to be fully appreciated:

Toyota Hybrid Horror Hoax

"On the very day Toyota was making a high-profile defense of its cars, one of them was speeding out of control," said CBS News--and a vast number of other media outlets worldwide.

It got far more dramatic, though. The California Highway Patrol responded and "To get the runaway car to stop, they actually had to put their patrol car in front of the Prius and step on the brakes." During over 20 harrowing minutes, according to NBC's report, Sikes "did everything he could to try to slow down that Prius." Others said, "Radio traffic indicated the driver was unable to turn off the engine or shift the car into neutral."

In fact, almost none of this was true. Virtually every aspect of Sikes's story as told to reporters makes no sense. His claim that he'd tried to yank up the accelerator could be falsified, with his help, in half a minute. And now we even have an explanation for why he'd pull such a stunt ...

... Now here's the potential smoking gun: Sikes told the reporters that "I was reaching down and trying to pull up on the gas pedal. It didn't move at all; it was stationary." That's awfully daring for somebody who insisted he didn't even want to take a hand off his steering wheel, notwithstanding that he did so to hold his phone.

... I tried to imitate Sikes' alleged effort in a 2008 Prius.

... it required squashing my face against the radio and completely removing my eyes from the road.

... So why did he do it? Sleuth work at the Web sites Jalopnik.com and Gawker.com reveals that Sikes and his wife Patty in 2008 filed for bankruptcy and are over $700,000 in debt.

... Sikes also has a history of filing insurance claims for allegedly stolen items that are slowly coming to light.

... (The media) have been as determined to not investigate Sikes' claims as Sikes was to not stop his car. It's a Toyota media feeding frenzy and the media aren't about to let little things like incredible stories and readily-refutable claims get in the way.

Ah, but the establishment media has still been able to find the time to look into the potential legal and financial ramifications for Toyota. On Wednesday, the Associated Press's Curt Anderson and Greg Bluestein threw up a 1,300-word report estimating how much class-action and other lawsuits could cost the company (answer: supposedly over $3 billion), after "review of cases, legal precedent and interviews with experts."

Of course it can never be proven, but perhaps the AP pair's interest in documenting the potential damage had something to do with news from the previous day indicating that what has for weeks appeared to be an orchestrated media and government campaign to discredit the company may not be having the desired effect:

Toyota sales up 50 percent from March 2009

A high-ranking Toyota executive says the auto company's North American sales spiked around 50 percent the first eight days of March as incentives helped lure customers after a series of embarrassing safety recalls.

It seems that the car-buying public is far less scared of Toyota's supposed "killer cars" than establishment media journalists are of doing real investigations into the validity of the claims.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.