In 1984, the Center for Auto Safety reported that there had been more than 3,500 accidents involving Ford vehicles with automatic transmissions that allegedly popped out of park and into reverse. And it charged that its nemesis, the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), “has concealed the alarming increase in deaths … by manipulating fatality statistics and by refusing to investigate — and thus count — dozens of reported deaths.”
Ralph Nader charged later the same year that White House interference had played a role in the more than 70 reported deaths up to that point. But in July of 1985 NHTSA rejected a bid to reopen the case involving 23 million 1966 to 1979 cars, instead settling for a warning sticker advising people to make sure their cars were firmly in park. That decision saved Ford many millions.
History repeats, some people would say. On World News with Charles Gibson and Nightline tonight, ABC-TV will run the result of an investigation into reports that Toyota vehicles of all types and sizes experience “runaway acceleration,” reaching speeds of up to 90 miles an hour. The network cites some 2,000 cases, many involving fatalities.
Toyota says the explanation is unsecured or improper floor mats, but hundreds of consumers (an “owners’ rebellion,” says ABC) are not buying that. They think the problem lies in the cars’ computers or electronic software. For its part, NHTSA, having investigated reports for six years, agrees with Toyota — it is unable to find anything wrong with the cars beyond loose mats.
Then and now, Clarence Ditlow was the executive director of Washington’s Center for Auto Safety. Reached by telephone today, he sees a parallel between the Ford and Toyota cases. "Both Toyota’s and Ford’s reaction is to blame the issue on driver error. In the '80s, they said the driver didn’t put the car fully in park — they left it in neutral or what have you. In Toyota’s case, it’s the floor mat’s fault. The manufacturers want to avoid a costly engineering recall. For Toyota, any recall that goes beyond the floor mat will be very expensive.”
Ditlow points to a Michigan lawsuit against Toyota resulting from a 2008 accident in a 2005 Camry that killed Guadalupe Alberto. The car, the suit says, “accelerated from an intended speed of less than 25 mph to a speed of approximately 80 mph, despite Guadalupe Alberto’s having vigorously and desperately applied her brakes …” The car hit a tree, and Alberto died. And, according to the lawsuit, that car did not have floor mats at the time of the crash.
“NHTSA did not investigate that crash,” Ditlow said. The agency’s most recent denial of a petition about sudden acceleration did not follow a request to Toyota posing questions, which Ditlow says is very unusual in a major defect petition.
But NHTSA’s investigation was by no means cursory. The report is nearly 20 pages long, and attempts to duplicate problems possibly arising from the engine control unit, or even from the magnetic fields that some have alleged pose a danger to hybrid car owners.
Given major network exposure, it’s likely that the sudden acceleration issue will remain alive for quite some time. And the answers provided by NHTSA and Toyota will definitely not please everyone. Toyota’s Brian Lyons told me the company is working on a response to the ABC story. “Our position is unchanged,” he said. “NHTSA has investigated six times, and come up with similar findings. The defect trend shows unsecured or incompatible floor mats are the issue.”
Given more space, I'd have gone into the case of the exploding Ford Pinto, also a Ford issue decades ago. But just mentioning it I'm sure stirs memories.