Accusations, worries about Priuses unfounded 

I’ve been driving Toyota Priuses since 2001. As a junior defense lawyer in the mid-’90s, I litigated a number of bogus sudden-acceleration cases that were brought against General Motors.

So the recent kerfuffle about alleged mysterious electronic problems with the Prius and other Toyotas certainly caught my attention beyond just throwing my floor mat in the trunk.

I knew the public hysteria had reached unprecedented proportions when my father — a Ph.D. geologist skeptical of everything from President George W. Bush to global warming (and that’s just the G’s) — credulously e-mailed me repeatedly to demand I read a news release from a plaintiffs’ lawyer on how to prevent runaway vehicles.

The short answer: Hit the brake and stay on it.  Every vehicle on the road today has a braking system more powerful than its engine. Shift into neutral. Then turn off the power.

So James Sikes, who made a dramatic 911 call from his Prius on Interstate 8 in San Diego last week, is effectively claiming he had an electrical problem that affected his throttle, his brake and his power system because it took him more than 20 minutes to stop his car.

Somehow, no one in the media has asked Sikes how it is he could stop the car once it had slowed to 50 mph, but not when it was going 90 mph.

Even if one believes all the hype, the reaction so far has been a giant overreaction. Fifty-odd deaths in 10 years and millions of Toyotas is a drop in the bucket compared to the general risk of being on the road at all.

As Carnegie Mellon University professor Paul Fischbeck calculates, I face 19 times more risk walking home the mile back from my Toyota dealer than I would driving a car that one assumes has the electronic defect.

But one shouldn’t believe the hype. We went through this a generation ago with the Audi 5000 and other autos accused of sudden acceleration, and, again, mysterious unknowable car components were supposedly at fault.

In a North Carolina case I worked on, the plaintiffs’ expert theorized that electromagnetic transmissions from submarines might have set off the throttle via the cruise control, though, not surprisingly, he was unable to duplicate the effect while driving around electrical towers with much greater electromagnetic interference.

Back then, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spent millions studying the issue. It found that sudden acceleration was several times more likely among elderly drivers than young drivers, and much more frequent among the very short or someone who had just gotten into a vehicle.

Electromagnetic rays don’t discriminate by age and height, which suggests very much that human factors were at play — in other words, pedal misapplication. A driver would step on the wrong pedal, panic when the car did not perform as expected, continue to mistake the accelerator for the brake, and press down on the accelerator even harder.

This had disastrous consequences in a 1992 Washington Square Park incident that killed five and a 2003 Santa Monica farmers market incident that killed 10 — the New York driver, Stella Maycheck, was 74 (and quite short); the California driver, George Russell Weller, was 86.

We’re seeing the same pattern again today. Again, mysterious car components are at issue, this time speculation of software or electronics going haywire.  But if the problem is software, it’s manifesting itself a lot like the Audi sudden acceleration did.

These “electronic defects” apparently discriminate against the elderly, just as the sudden acceleration of Audis and GM autos did before them.

But Toyota is being mau-maued by Democratic regulators and legislators in the pockets of trial lawyers — who, according to The Associated Press, stand to make a billion dollars from blaming Toyota for driver error.

Media irresponsibility severely damaged Audi’s brand in the U.S. for years. GM’s litigation expenses from sudden acceleration and similarly bogus product liability suits contributed to its recent need for a taxpayer bailout.

The media needs to exhibit more skepticism before it does trial lawyers’ bidding against Toyota on a speculative theory of electronic defect absent of evidence.

Theodore H. Frank is founder and president of the Center for Class Action Fairness. He does not speak for General Motors.

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