CC Feature: Feeding Frenzy – A History Of The Dumb Masses On America’s Roads

I couldn’t help but notice while I was on vacation last month that the feds had (more or less) cleared Toyota of culpability in the rash of runaway acceleration incidents that had finally pushed Britney Spears multiple addiction episodes off the front page a year earlier. Not that it did any good mind you, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Board admitted that, um, well, some nitwit drivers voters couldn’t tell the go pedal from the stop pedal and well, never mind, false alarm. Meanwhile,Toyota spent countless expensive engineering hours trying to unsuccessfully replicate the problems claimed by the goofballs that wanted their 15 minutes (and/or some ca$h). Unfortunately, this was hardly the first media/trial lawyer/publicity-hound incident that we have witnessed in the U.S.

In fact, my research shows that these dramas are actually pretty common. Beginning with the Corvair witch hunt, the trial bar and media mafia has made a tidy living suing and defaming the bejabbers out of car companies. In this whack-a-do world, drivers never err. It’s always a baked-in defect that the makers have engineered in to make sure that the victim/driver will never argue with a salesman again. This phenomena can be traced directly to the reception accorded the book Unsafe At Any Speed by a young lawyer named Ralph Nader in 1964. Nader took the Corvair to task for supposed design defects that were at best negligent and at worst, deliberate.

Never mind that some of the claimed defects were standard faults of other cars in those days (and were even worse on the majority of imports), Nader went hunting for a big bad wolf and found it in General Motors, then the worlds largest maker of cars and trucks. His book became the blueprint for the vilification of any manufacturer that failed to build a perfect car from then on.

After Unsafe, any perceived defect or unconventional engineering became fair game for second guessing when dumb, inattentive or impaired drivers met an untimely end or suffered injury while driving a suspect car. The facts of the case were sometimes beside the point –  if a car went crash or boom, the villain was sometimes the engineer or executive that designed it a decade (or more) before. As long as the media would point a camera at a grieving widow, mother or wife, there could be no question that somebody had to be responsible and that somebody couldn’t be the dearly departed. Thus the media frenzy was given full flower and has become a hardy perennial for several decades now. Let’s take a look at these episodes in rough chronological order and decide (away from the heat of the moment) if the indictment of these cars and their makers was/is fair.

A caveat: In journalism,there are the facts and there is the truth. The fact is that people died driving some of these cars. Just about everybody agrees on facts. The truth, meanwhile, is less concrete. Is it true that the Corvair was a “dangerous, ill handling car”? Depends on who you ask. Ralph Nader said yes. A lot of commentators here say no; it handled fine-in the right hands.

The fact is that a cheap floor mat from K-Mart can get stuck under the gas pedal and make your car keep running when you want it to stop. (It happens in Daihatsu’s too, believe me). So we’re not going to dispense any justice here today. But I hope that this study will help you pause and think next time the story is designed to whip you into a car maker hating frenzy. This is not an anti-lawyer diatribe. Lawyers do good work and sometimes are all that stands between us and the awesome power of a giant company. This is more of a peek at the tactics that Big Media use to manipulate our opinion and create outcomes. Outcomes that benefit…Big Media. Also, I’m not running for re-election to anything, so I also point the finger at the biggest culprit of all-dumb, lazy drivers.

Chevy Corvair– 1960-1964- The grandfather of media circuses. The Corvair was pilloried in the Nader book and its makers hauled before congress to be publicly flogged in time for the 6:30 news. Nader alleged that the Corvair was a death trap by design and that GM deliberately withheld vital safety equipment that would prevent the car’s tail-happy manners from becoming dangerous at the margin. GM did itself no favors by putting some private eyes on Nader and trying to dig up dirt on his lifestyle and keep him quiet. GM later apologized to Nader, changed the ‘Vairs suspension (for ’64), issued a recall, and killed the car in 1969.

Only after the car had been out of production for three model years did the government admit that compared to other models of the day with similar rear-engine designs (Renault Dauphine, VW Beetle) , the Corvair was no worse and was in some ways better than the competition. In the hands of American drivers, the cars quirky tire pressure differences could be lethal , but the Corvair was built by GM and nobody makes a name taking on a small opponent.

Ford Pinto – Different car, different result. The charge that the Pinto’s gas tank location was unsafe was hard to rebut when you could see it peeking out from beneath the rear apron. Failure by designers to shield it behind something more substantial than one layer of sheet metal and Ford’s mulish refusal to listen to engineers that argued for a redesign led to a Mother Jones expose in 1977 that killed the car’s public image. MJ dug and dug and found that the car was built down to a price target set by none other than the father of the Mustang- Lido “Lee” Iacocca himself.

Worse yet for the company, someone who was in a position to know let it slip that Ford knew that the tank design was a hot potato, but the lawyers convinced them that the resulting lawsuits would be cheaper than fixing the tank. This was just the smoking gun needed to set the media tinder alight and soon Americans information gathering hours were filled with tales of exploding Pinto’s. 60 Minutes , The New York Times and every publication but the Weekly Shopper laid bare Ford’s duplicity. The company eventually recalled the Pinto and indeed put in the fix that had been suggested from the get-go, but there was no saving the car. By 1981 the Pinto was history and Ford’s public image was at low ebb.

Jeep CJ 5- The 5 had been in production for almost 28 years in one form or another when 60 Minutes ran a piece in 1980 about its alleged tendency to roll over like an excited Dachshund when subjected to an evasive maneuver. Left unsaid was how people in the backwoods shouldn’t and wouldn’t be doing evasive maneuvers in a short wheelbase vehicle with a rather high center of gravity (Unless it was to escape TV film crews flashing their business cards).

Ironically, the CJ 5 was due for extinction anyway (it would be replaced by the CJ 7 and then by the YJ Wrangler), but sales fell immediately and for good after the piece aired. Left un- noted was how the DJ 5 (which was substantially the same vehicle) almost never rolled over. It was driven by the postal service and evasive maneuvers would have probably not been included in the employee handbook. The CJ was later vindicated as no more unsafe than any other neck snapping SUV when used responsibly. Thousands of DJ 5’s are still delivering the mail to this day, almost all of them from an upright position.

Another problem with the 60 Minutes hit piece was the context. It took over 400 runs on the test track to get 8 rollovers. And that was when the steering wheel was turned 1 ½ turns (a violent whipsaw, if you ask me) . But even that is deceptive. If you do over 400 evasive maneuvers in a Jeep, we have a name for you : Stunt Driver

Audi 5000– Our own Paul Niedermeyer editorialized on this fiasco/circus/grease fire. In November 1986, 60 Minutes ran a shocking expose on the “unintended acceleration” of the Audi 5000. In 17 minutes, using tear jerking (heavily edited) footage and interviews, CBS laid bare the sins of the designers of one of the most lethal cars ever known. This was a rare moment when we, as a nation, courageously decided to believe anecdotal tall tales told by idiots.

The car that 60 Minutes rigged to replicate the carnage being perpetrated on its hapless owners had an option that wasn’t listed on the order sheet: A compressed canister of air attached to the transmission that could make it fly through doors, windows and bystanders no matter how hard the dimwit behind the wheel pushed the pedal immediately to the left of the gas. This was a time when the public became acquainted with phrases like “WOT”, SUA’s and “Plaintiff’s Bar”.

The fact was, the 5000 had a smaller than usual brake pedal (in the European idiom) that didn’t work AT ALL in North America unless it was pushed, and almost every owner that claimed that their car had become a crazed killer were later found to have pushed the gas pedal to the firewall when they thought that they were pushing the brake. My daughter did this very thing once (in a Ford Aspire). She swore that she was pushing the brake as hard as her right leg could compress it and still managed to jump two curbs, take out a fence and sideswipe a light pole. She didn’t sue anyone. She and the Aspire survived. Her dignity did not.

But not every attempt at whipping the lumpenproletariat into a frenzy is successful. General Motors itself won an isolated battle in the Thirty Years War against sensationalism in 1993. The aggressor was Dateline NBC, then a third place, third rate 60 Minutes wanna-be. On November 17, 1992, the show breathlessly assured us that our GM full size pickup trucks wanted to kill us. And they had the video to prove it. Viewers watched as Silverados, Cheyenne’s and Custom 10’s blew up like time payment IED’s when subjected to a side impact collision by anything bigger than a shopping cart. Body bags were ordered. Funeral homes put out “Help Wanted” signs by the road. Tort lawyers put in frantic calls to swimming pool contractors. It looked like a new wave of death and catastrophe would descend upon the trucks luckless owners.

But there was only one, teeny, tiny problem with the NBC story- it was as phony as Stone Phillips’ surgically enhanced orthodontia. It seemed that the trucks just refused to explode on cue. Sometimes it took repeated ramming for the side saddle tanks to catch fire and prove the bogus point that NBC was trying to make. But small mistakes are for amateurs and the people at Dateline were no amateurs. Just to make sure that people could see what might happen if conditions were just so, the show rigged some toy rocket motors to ignite when the trucks were T-Boned . Mission accomplished. The GM full sizers went Hindenburg and NBC got its “sweeps” trophy. GM trucks resale value plunged. As would happen during the Toyota/Lexus debacle later, some dealers refused them as trade ins.

But the peacock network wasn’t picking on some johnny-come-lately. This victim would fight back. GM lawyers went to work deconstructing the piece and found that there were some obvious camera and engineering tricks used to get the results that the network wanted. Six frames of film proved to be Dateline’s undoing. After watching the piece frame for frame, GM observed that the explosions started before impact and didn’t come from where they should have come from based on the narrative. The story was a high tech hoax and GM destroyed it with a point by point news conference in February 1993. Only later did a sheepish Jane Pauley (who had nothing to do with the original story) apologize to the company and viewers. The original ran almost an hour. The apology got 3 ½ minutes.

Toyota/ Lexus – 2010- Rhonda Smith’s tearful story (to congress, on TV) did it for me. It convinced me that some people shouldn’t own cars. Smith, you will recall, swore before our nations highest elected body that her Lexus ES 350 surged out of control in a WOT (Wide Open Throttle) situation on October 12, 2006 east of Knoxville, Tennessee . It was the classic she said/she said one sided narrative. When Smith finally got her “possessed” ES under control, it managed to start itself while presumably being towed to an exorcism at the local L/T dealer.

Her story made no sense (she claimed to have shifted into neutral and reverse-not possible with that model at highway speeds), but there we were as a nation, lapping it up because we had seen story after mind numbing story for weeks that Toyotas and Lexuses had become sleeper cell terrorist cars that surged out of control maiming and killing when the gas pedal was depressed by their litigious owners. Plus, she looked like our mom, on TV, crying. The sharks really went for the chum this time: Lawyers were advertising within a week that they would review your half baked anecdotal fantasy for free if you would call the toll free number crawling at the bottom of your screen.

CNN spent hours of air time interviewing everyone except a decent mechanic when a Prius owner couldn’t get his enviro-ride to stop just outside LA. Toyota itself even fell for the hype. Big T recalled about 6 million cars for a look -see at the accelerator pedal assembly in question. A shim kit placed in the assembly was duly installed and the furor began to subside. It was only after everybody’s attention shifted and the cameras were turned off that the truth came out.

The NHTSA issued it’s report on the Toyota/Lexus Unintended Acceleration drama in February of 2011. But unlike in the Audi fiasco, recent model cars have modern “black boxes” that tell facts that don’t make for good TV. And when the feds examined those black boxes against the stories their owners told, the owners were revealed to be morons. In the vast majority of cases, the driver was doing the same thing my clumsy daughter did in her Aspire years before- they panicked and pushed the gas harder and harder. Toyota was cleared, but there were no tearful confessions in front of congress by elderly women admitting that they couldn’t tell one pedal from another.

So there you have it- Conclusive proof that silly people with lawyers shouldn’t have cars. Actually, I believe that some shoddy engineering has gone into what we drive since the, oh, 1880’s or so. But its only been rather recently that the mass media, with many hours to profitably fill , has turned our collective consciousness toward suing the pants off of one another over what in the hands of capable, alert drivers can be perfectly safe vehicles.

And I was born at night-but not last night. I know that car companies will do whatever is in their short term interest to make a buck and the consequences be damned. I get that. But as a recovering member of the media, It makes me dizzy with anger when I see obviously stupid, manufactured “crises” aimed at the companies that make our cars. It comes dangerously close to telling us what to think. So I’m going to throw it open and get your take on the whole media frenzy culture and its consequences.