Posts Tagged ‘sudden acceleration’

Toyota acceleration: why I’m skeptical

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.

Staged footage in ABC News Toyota “test”

Looks like network news departments are up to some of their old tricks. Gawker has the story (“How ABC News’ Brian Ross Staged His Toyota Death Ride”) and followup (“ABC News’ Toyota Test Fiasco”).

In the chapter “Trial Lawyer TV” in my book The Rule of Lawyers (St. Martin’s 2003, not online, why don’t you buy a copy?) I found that not only had the networks seemed to have learned nothing from the notorious 1993 “Dateline NBC” fiasco, they had actually gone back to using some of the same expert witnesses, “consumer” groups and staging techniques that had gotten them in trouble in the first place. So I must say nothing surprises me.

More: Neal Boudette, “Toyota slams ABC News on pedals”, WSJ:

At a news conference, engineering consultants hired by Toyota also showed they are able to cause vehicles made by three other auto makers to rev suddenly by making the same electronic modifications used by a college professor who was the subject of the ABC report, and who testified before Congress last month.

Other coverage: Matt Hardigree, Jalopnik; Washington Post (quoting senior editor Bill Visnic as saying the carmaker “really chipped away at the evidence provided by Dr. Gilbert during the congressional hearings”); Safety Research & Strategies of Rehoboth, Mass., a trial lawyer consulting firm, “funded Gilbert’s test”, according to Business Week; Gilbert’s response at

“The Real Scandal Behind the Toyota Recall”

Some views you probably won’t be hearing during today’s highly orchestrated Capitol Hill events [Ed Wallace, Business Week] Regarding that “declining quality at Toyota” meme [“The Truth About NHTSA Complaints,” TTAC] Sudden runup in count of deaths “linked to” possible Toyota acceleration is from newly filed reports on old cases [Fumento/CEI] Commentary from Richard Epstein [ via Damon Root, Reason “Hit and Run”] Former trial lawyer lobbyist David Strickland, now helping lead charge against Toyota as NHTSA administrator, was principal author of ghastly CPSIA law [Amend The CPSIA] Also: links to ongoing Point of Law coverage.

December 4 roundup

  • Insurance mandate or no, New Jersey specialists tending to duck out of high-legal-risk procedures like mammography [Amy Handlin, Gloucester County Times via NJLRA]
  • Audi redux, or something different this time? L.A. Times endorses charges of sudden acceleration against Toyota [Holman Jenkins/WSJ, FindLaw “Injured“]
  • Ghastly idea of the year: Rep. Waxman wants federal government to be “responsible” for fixing journalism [Coyote, Bainbridge]
  • “Arkansas Judge Tosses Defamation Lawsuit Against Dixie Chicks Over ‘West Memphis Three’ Letter” [Citizen Media Law, Longstreth/American Lawyer]
  • Judge Weinstein: falsification by arresting officers seems “widespread” in NYPD [Balko, Greenfield]
  • U.K.: Carbon ration cards? [Krauthammer]
  • Nova Scotia, Canada: “A Couple in their 70s Wave at A Kid…And In Swoop the Cops” [Free-Range Kids]
  • Barbra Streisand loses suit over aerial photo of her Malibu home taken by environmental group; by suing, she ensures that many thousands more people will see the photograph, in what is dubbed “Streisand effect” [six years ago on Overlawyered]

March 26 roundup

  • More fen-phen scandals: Possible smoking-gun email in Kentucky case (see Walter’s post today) came from Chesley firm computer; Vicksburg lawyer first attorney convicted in Mississippi fen-phen scam. [Courier-Journal via Lattman; Clarion-Ledger (h/t S.B.)] (Updated with correct Courier-Journal link.)
  • Allegheny College found not liable by jury for student’s suicide; school raised issue of student privacy concerns. Earlier on OL: May 30; Dec. 7, 2004. [WSJ]
  • Update on the tempered glass versus laminated issue earlier discussed in Overlawyered (Feb. 15, 2006; May 16, 2005; May 13, 2005, etc.) [LA Times]
  • Massachusetts court rejects quack sudden acceleration theory. (See also Dec. 20, Aug. 7, etc.) [Prince]
  • California bill would bar carpenters from school campuses. [Overcriminalized]
  • New book: Antitrust Consent Decrees in Theory and Practice [Richard Epstein @ AEI]
  • To be fair, I went to school with “young Mr Sussman, the boyish charmer”, and I don’t know how to pronounce “calumnies” either—it’s one of those words I’ve only seen written, and never heard spoken [Steyn; MSNBC]

Not about the money files: Steve Yerrid’s shallow forgiveness

If you ever want to see a trial lawyer manipulate the press, and the press unskeptically eat it up, you could do worse than to watch the recent performance of Steve Yerrid (Oct. 5-6) in a recent Tampa trial.

The facts convey an undeniably terrible accident. Fifty-year-old high-school-dropout Denzil Blake was cleaning an Isuzu Rodeo at Town ‘N Country Car Wash when he accidentally hit the gearshift, sending the car (which should not have been running) out of neutral. Blake didn’t know how to drive (Florida law allows a person without a driver’s license to operate a vehicle on private property, so there was nothing illegal about allowing unlicensed drivers to move cars in a carwash), panicked, and accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the brake, sending the car speeding into 43-year-old Brenda Lee Brown, striking her just after she pushed her young son’s stroller to safety; she died of her injuries two days later. Blake was not criminally charged.

Read On…

Update: Sudden acceleration: litigation springs eternal

In 1995, 70-year old Marlene Fett pressed the wrong pedal on her Lincoln Town Car, and smashed into a carousel in front of an Arkansas Wal-Mart, killing one boy and severely injuring his brother. The Chapman family settled with Fett, and blamed Wal-Mart and Ford, Wal-Mart on a theory that it should have anticipated the possibility of a car hitting a merry-go-round at 30 mph, and Ford on that old plaintiffs’ lawyer claim of “sudden acceleration,” a “defect” that somehow is six times more likely to strike elderly drivers. The case made the front page of USA Today in 2004 (resulting in an Apr. 19, 2004 Overlawyered story), though the newspaper kindly noted the lack of science behind the claim:

Little Rock attorney Sandy McMath, who is representing the Chapmans, says the Town Car’s cruise control put Fett on a “rocket ship to Mars” after she pulled out of her parking place. He petitioned NHTSA to investigate what he says is a defect in Ford and Lincoln models’ cruise control that causes the accelerator to stick.

In a lengthy 1999 [sic] report denying McMath’s petition, NHTSA investigator Bob Young wrote that even if such an occurrence took place and didn’t leave evidence of a mechanical malfunction, the situation should be reproducible through in-vehicle and laboratory tests. None of NHTSA’s testing could do so.

The Wal-Mart theory was similarly bogus, and refuted when an expert demonstrated that the plaintiffs’ proposed safety measure wouldn’t have stopped the speeding car. (For Illinois’ take on premises liability for auto accidents: Jun. 23.) An Arkansas jury also rejected the claims, and, after years of litigation, now the Arkansas Supreme Court has affirmed that decision in a not-especially-interesting Dec. 14 opinion, Chapman v. Ford Motor Co. Wal-Mart and Ford are still out the hundreds of thousands of dollars they spent defending themselves in the lottery litigation, not to mention the cost of bad publicity from sudden acceleration claims and quacks like the Center for Auto Safety trumpeting a non-existent problem. Arkansas acquits itself better than a South Carolina federal court did in a story we covered Aug. 7.