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.
Dating back to 1992 models, LA Times reporters found 56 deaths reported to NHTSA over the course of 19 model-years. If Toyota is suffering from electronic problems, these electronic problems should affect all drivers equally. If Toyota sudden acceleration is caused by driver pedal misapplication, then we should expect to see a disproportionate number of elderly and short drivers. Unfortunately, we don’t have driver heights, and in only 24 of the 56 cases, did the Times list the age of the driver.
The ages: 18, 21, 22*, 32, 34, 44, 45, 47, 56, 57, 58, 60, 61, 63, 66, 68, 71**, 72, 72, 77, 79, 83, 85, 89.
*Passenger victim was 22 and “friend” of driver.
**Passenger victim was 71 and married to husband-driver for 46 years.
The median age is 60.5; the majority of drivers are 60 or older; a third are older than 70. And I left out the case of a driver who was the son of a 94-year-old victim rather than guesstimate his age to be 65. That looks suspiciously like the makeup of Audi sudden acceleration cases, and a lot like driver error to me. Color me skeptical. Very very skeptical.
Update, March 12: Megan McArdle has done some very impressive journalism following up on my work to fill in the gaps that the LA Times left out. Here’s her spreadsheet. (McArdle also has the guts to mention the disproportionate number of immigrants in the sample, which I didn’t.) Her report makes me realize I made a mistake in the sequence above: I confused an 89-year-old passenger with a 71-year-old driver. In addition, the driver I conservatively estimated to be 71 above turns out to have been 75. And McArdle says that a driver I listed as 61 is 60. Here’s McArdle’s more complete and more accurate sequence; I’ve estimated three of the ages where they were not listed:
18, 21, 21*, 20s**, 32, 34, 36, 44, 45, 47, 56, 56, 57, 58, 60, 60, 63, 60s***, 66, 68, 71, 72, 72, 75, 75, 77, 77, 79, 83, 87
*Driver was with 21-year-old friend
**Driver had girlfriend and young daughter
***Driver was picking up 67-year-old friend for church.
This actually strengthens my case: the median age is 60, 16 out of 30 (or 15 out of 29) are 60 or older (as compared to 16% of drivers in all automotive fatalities)—that’s a relative risk of over 6. We’ve gone from a small sample size of 24 to a slightly less small sample size of 29-30, improving statistical significance.
Separately, reader G. writes:
Hey Ted: one more data point on why Mr. Prius Acceleration is likely a fake — the stretch of I8 where the incident occurred. If you were to pick the one stretch of highway in San Diego County where you could go 94 MPH with almost no traffic and almost no curves, that is the stretch. At about 15 miles east of San Diego that road becomes deserted at all hours — it runs out into the Imperial Valley and then into Arizona. I have driven it tens of times, at all times of day, and never hit traffic unless there was a Border Patrol checkpoint. It is also almost straight– with some very moderate curves and some hills. Counter-data points: (a) About 60 miles east of San Diego (heading East) you hit some severe curves and a steep downhill grade as the road heads out of the mountains and onto the desert floor. I wouldn’t want to head into that at 94 MPH, even if I was faking the acceleration; and (b) dude is from Jacumba, which is on that highway (he didn’t drive from another part of the area just to drive on the road.
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.
Popular radio host Mike Rosen had me on his program last week to talk about the Justice Department’s aggressive use of criminal law against the Japanese automaker (earlier here). Also check out Canadian columnist Terence Corcoran’s view: “Intended media acceleration and the assault on Toyota” [Financial Post]
Lawyers have taken unintended-acceleration cases to trial on a variety of theories, including pedal placement and lack of brake override, but have not had much success in arguing that electronic gremlins inhabit the vehicle and that the driver was correctly pressing the brake. Has their luck changed with an Oklahoma jury’s new verdict? The Japanese automaker doesn’t seem to want to take chances, and promptly settled the case, represented on the plaintiff’s side by Montgomery, Ala.’s Beasley Allen. [National Law Journal, The Truth About Cars; Peter Huber on the Audi scare a quarter-century ago] Commenter at TTAC: “I’d like to see this happen with a jury of engineers.” More: Mass Tort Prof.
“A jury cleared Toyota Motor Corp. of liability Thursday in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a Southern California woman killed in a 2009 crash that occurred amid widespread reports of unintended acceleration involving Toyota vehicles.” Despite regular hints in places like the Los Angeles Times that undetected electronic defects might be to blame for sudden acceleration, lawyers for Uno’s family went to trial on the more prosaic theory that Toyota was wrong not to have included a brake override system in the car as an added help to drivers who might be unable to correct a depressed gas pedal. A jury disagreed. [AP/NBC Los Angeles; L.A. Times]
Ed Wallace at Bloomberg Business Week tells why the Toyota sudden-acceleration debacle merely replays a long and sad history:
I don’t mean to single out CBS for criticism. Plenty of other media outlets share the blame. For 30 years they have treated us to Jeep, Suzuki, and Isuzu Trooper rollovers, Audi unintended acceleration, side-saddle gas tanks exploding, police cars catching on fire, Firestone tires blowing out, and then the Toyota case. And each time the media took the word of those with a vested financial interest in the outcome—and every time they got burned for doing so.
Unable to show any electronic flaw in the vehicles, plaintiff’s lawyers switch to the theory that the automaker should have embraced “brake override” technology that disengages the throttle when the brake is applied. That technology doesn’t work, of course, if the driver is in fact mistakenly hitting the accelerator when intending to hit the brake — which was what happened in earlier sudden-acceleration scares, and looks likely to be the cause of most of the Toyota incidents as well. [L.A. Times]