NHTSA: No, Toyotas Do Not Suddenly Accelerate Unless You Press the Accelerator

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At the apex of PJ O'Rourke's description of the 1980s Sudden Acceleration Incident craze of the 1980s (found in the brilliant Parliament of Whores), he describes what happened when the National Highway Safety Transportation Authority released its report on the phenomenon:



In the twinkling of an eye (by the standards of bureaucratic time, which is slower than geologic time but more expensive than time spent with Madame Claude's girls in Paris) the thing was done.  On Marcy 7, 1989, the DOT-NHTSA-ODI-TSC-OPSAD-VRTC . . . effort produced an eighty-one page report written by an eight man group of engineering savants with more than fifty years of college among them.  This document presented evidence from exhaustive experiment and analysis that proved what everybody who understands how to open the hood of a car had known all along about SAIs:  "Pedal misapplications are the likely cause of these incidents."

Yes, the dumb buggers stepped on the gas instead of the brake.  Thus sudden-acceleration incidents, or SAIs, closely resemblAnywaAnyway, the truth was out at last.  The goernment had released a huge report showing that there was no such thing as unintended acceleration in automobiles.  Stand by for huge government reports on fairies stealing children and poker wealth gained by drawing to inside straights.  Meanwhile, cars did not fly away of their own accord.  They could be safely left unattended. 

. . . So the truth was out, and we people who like automobiles and can tell our right foot from our elbow should have been glad. But there was, in fact, no reason to celebrate. This message from the federal bowl of Alpha-Bits had cost us taxpayers millions of dollars and came too late to save Audi from teh ignorance, credulity, opportunism and sheer Luddite malice directed toward that corporation and its products. Furthermore, the Department of Transportation press release introducing the SAI report absolved the paddle-shoed, dink-wit perpetrators of sudden acceleration. It just let Betty Dumb-Toes and Joe Boat-Foot right off the hook:

NHTSA declined to characterize the cause of sudden acceleration as driver error. Driver error may imply carelessness or willfulness in failing to operate a car properly. Pedal misapplication is more descriptive. It could happen to even the most attentive driver who inadvertently selects the wrong pedal and continues to do so unwittingly.

The next time I get pulled over by the state highway patrol, I'm telling the officer, "You probably intend to ticket me for speeding, which would be driver error. But pedal misapplication is more descriptive of what occurred. It could happen to even the most attentive driver who inadvertently selects the wrong pedal and continues to do so unwittingly."

Naturally, when Toyota's troubles started, I immediately thought of this passage. I decided to poke around in the data about the accidents, and found that this time around, they sure did look a lot like, um, pedal misapplication.

Now the NHTSA, which is in charge of investigating this sort of thing, has released its report data on this round of SAIs. And while history may not repeat itself, it seems to stutter like hell:


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.

The findings by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration involve a sample of reports in which a driver of a Toyota vehicle said the brakes were depressed but failed to stop the car from accelerating and ultimately crashing.

The data recorders analyzed by NHTSA were selected by the agency, not Toyota, based on complaints the drivers had filed with the government.

The results suggest that some drivers who said their Toyota and Lexus vehicles surged out of control were mistakenly flooring the accelerator when they intended to jam on the brakes. But the findings don't exonerate Toyota from two known issues blamed for sudden acceleration in its vehicles: sticky accelerator pedals and floor mats that can trap accelerator pedals to the floor.


This is not exactly surprising--it's hard to make a car go when the brake is depressed, unless you've burned out the brake pads. But in O'Rourke's classic piece, he goes onto explain why the government had to issue this sort of report:

The titleless, nameless but--as reporters always say--"highly placed" NHTSA functionary explained to me that all his car-safety experts were trained as automotive engineers. They came to work for DOT because they could get better jobs and more responsibility taking mechanical and electronic structures to pieces at NHTSA than they could get by spending fifteen years as the third assistant headlight bezel engineer at GM's panel-truck division

This was the most disheartening thing I ever heard in Washington. This was much worse than hearing about government malfeasance, incompetence and corruption. When it's better for enthusiastic and ambitious professionals to go to work for a country's government than it is for them to go to work, the country is in trouble . . .

Then the NHTSA functionary gave me an explanation--the second most disheartening thing I ever heard in Washingotn--of why the DOT had to commission a multi-million-dollar study to prove that there is no such thing as sudden acceleration even though he and everyone else at DOT knew sudden-acceleration incidents didn't exist: SAIs would be reported to NHTSA. NHTSA would investigate them thoroughly. NHTSA would say they were caused by human error. And no one believed NHTSA.

The public would say, "Who me? Make a mistake? Me, the voter?"

In a democracy we regular citizens don't make mistakes. We never get in a car and step on the wrong pedal and run people over. Somebody does these things to us. The Trilateral Commission or the Freemasons. Maybe it's part of the Iran-contra conspiracy or a big foreign corporation's fault. You can't blame us.

And indeed, the DOT couldn't blame us. Even after completing its massive study of SAIs and showing that SAIs were all our own fault, the DOT couldn't quite bring itself to blame us.

Still, the study had to be done. Before the SAI study, blame evasion was getting out of hand. Newspapers were saying that sudden acceleration was caused by malfunctioning cruise-control mechanisms. The Center for Automotive Safety was claiming that radio waves made the computers in cars act up. Other ignorati pointed fingers at arcane goings-on within transmission housings and fuel-injection systems. Then, when "60 Minutes" did its piece on SAIs, Audis began jumping and leaping and cavorting in suburban driveways like killer whales at Sea World, and the sky turned legal-pad yellow with law suits.

The people at DOT had to make their investigation of sudden acceleration not because they're fools, but because we are.

The most depressing thing to me about all of this is that if you change a few of the names, O'Rourke's article could have been written in 2010 rather than 1989. In fact, the same could be said of almost the entire book. And I'm sure that just as they did in 1989, the same people who started the hysteria will claim that the government is in the pocket of evil foreign corporations.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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