We all like a good thriller, especially true stories about powerful institutions that respond to problems with disinformation and smears. The Insider (Big Tobacco vs. Jeffrey Wigand) and Silkwood (Kerr McGee vs. Karen Silkwood) are great thriller movies. I haven't seen The Green Zone yet (although I hear it's good) and the Valerie Plame movie won't be out until August, but you get the idea.
Then there's Erin Brockovich. Her smearing wasn't really in the movie but it came later. It was largely through the efforts of right-wing fringe activists like Michael Fumento, who basically called the whole chromium contamination thing a hoax. Fumento has also distinguished himself by describing as myths heterosexual AIDS, gulf war syndrome and most kinds of pollution.
He is now on the "Toyota's sudden acceleration problem is a hoax" bandwagon, or at least describing the whole thing as a lot of unbridled "hysteria." He's not alone. Others have been raising questions about everything from the age of drivers (out of 56 deaths confirmed by the Los Angeles Times, apparently most were over age 55) to their immigration status (immigrants supposedly disproportionately represented).
When you listen to the tragic the 911 call of California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor, who was killed along with his wife, daughter and brother-in-law when he could not stop his out of control Toyota, you wonder, "How exactly is this helpful"?
This week, Toyota itself broke out with its own alleged hoax story, that of last week's runaway Prius incident involving driver James Sikes, whom Mr. Fumento analogized to Balloon Boy (even though the driver, Mr. Sikes, had no motive to lie about this). Toyota says that although it still has no idea what happened, its investigation of the incident has resulted in findings "inconsistent" with the driver's account. In other words, it could not replicate the incident. This seems an odd explanation, because the problem with these cases is that Toyota has never been able to reproduce any of them.
This tendency to try to flip responsibility onto the company's consumers -- the people who bought their cars -- is nothing new, but it seems like a terrible way to assure drivers and sell cars. Legal liability may be one motivating factor here, with federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) suits now being filed against the company on top of many other cases. There are Toyota apologists among the right who obsess about this kind of thing, writing articles like this one, that hopes to "dispel the Great Toyota Panic of 2010" by "reviewing the history of tort-bar opportunism and media malfeasance." They should have picked up the Los Angeles Times last week, where actual journalists reviewed the history of tort-bar success in making cars safer in this country, saving countless lives and giving us all reason to trust that they know what they're doing. The Times wrote:
[L]itigation continues to be a significant factor in making the automobile safer, say legal and auto industry experts. Consumers, insurers, federal regulators and automakers themselves also play big roles, but lawsuits are credited with such innovations as impact-absorbing dashboards and steering columns, and gas tanks that won't explode when a car is rear-ended.
Unfortunately, there is also a long history of the government blaming drivers for too many sudden acceleration incidents. Business Week wrote,
[The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration]'s approach to unintended acceleration was shaped by a 1989 report the agency employees prepared on the issue, before electronic systems that now guide most automotive functions were common, former staff members say. The study, prompted by complaints of uncontrolled acceleration in Audi 5000 sedans, concluded that human error was often the cause, in Audi and other vehicles.
"That report was given a lot of weight" by NHTSA defect investigators, said Allan Kam, former NHTSA senior enforcement attorney, who retired in 2000 after 25 years. "They regarded it as the gold standard. They developed this institutional bias that was extremely skeptical of consumers' complaints of sudden unintended acceleration."
As reports of deaths linked to acceleration complaints continue, lawmakers and safety advocates are urging NHTSA to drop its reliance on the 1989 report and start over.
Starting over and actually trying to fix the problem, instead of just accepting Toyota's description of things when in direct conflict with a driver's account, sounds like a great idea. If you listen to the congressional testimony of Rhonda Smith of Sevierville, Tennessee below, you'll see why. After her car sped to over 100 miles an hour and then started itself after being shut down, both Toyota and NHTSA tried to blame her, telling her this couldn't have happened. After many frustrating years trying to get someone to pay attention so that lives could be saved, she finally got to tell Congress what she has wanted to say for years: "Shame on you Toyota for being so greedy and shame on you NHTSA for not doing your job."
We don't know how this story will end. Guess we'll just wait for the movie.