Toyota’s sudden acceleration problem suddenly accelerates again

Yes, I know I wrote a blog with a similar title but this is new. I previously noted that in December the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said that 19 U.S. deaths over the past decade were “associated with” or “linked to” (choose your own terminology) alleged Toyota sudden acceleration incidents. In January it found two more and in February 13 more, bringing it to 34. Now it’s found a total of 52, the number being announced auspiciously at the start of a third congressional hearing today.

I scoured through one news story after another to find an explanation for the new numbers, but there was none except that the New York Post falsely claimed it resulted from “a closer analysis of traffic accident data.” Not incidentally, the piece was titled “Faulty Toyotas Kill 52 in United States.”

Six hours after the story broke, I called a press officer at NHTSA to find the real reason. It turns out I was the first person in the country to ask him.

In other words, the media don’t care why the numbers went up, they’re just scorekeepers and the higher the score the better. Turns out the accused witch put hexes on more children than was previously believed, and that’s all that counts.

But here’s the information NHTSA sent me.

The 52 fatalities come from 43 incidents and:

Three quarters of the incidents (32 out of 43) have been reported to NHTSA in the last four months, since Toyota’s October 2009 pedal entrapment recall. Sixty percent (26 incidents) have been reported since the “sticky pedal” recall in late January. It is normal for NHTSA to receive a spike in complaints after recalls are announced and public awareness increases.

In other words, in a sort of perpetual motion machine, media coverage is prompting people to “remember” old incidents and report them, whereupon the media uses these to create more hysteria and prompt even more recovered memories. We know that recovered memories are notoriously unreliable generally, but there are two special motivators at play here.

First, by definition somebody died in each of these accidents and assuming the driver survived he or she may be suffering an awful burden of guilt. Such people will obviously latch onto anything exculpatory.

Second, tort lawyers are signing up plaintiffs by the score. Even people with incredibly weak cases will figure they have nothing to lose and perhaps much to gain by joining one of the several current class actions. They probably wouldn’t even have to testify; they’d just wait for that check in the mail.

That’s just common sense, now isn’t it? But what do you think is always the first casualty of a hysteria?