Toyotas, media hysteria, and the illusion of cause

Independent investigative journalist Mike Fumento has been looking into the recent media uproar over Toyotas that suddenly accelerate out of control. Recall the tearful testimony before Congress of cars going out of control, media coverage worldwide documenting all of the deaths from sudden acceleration problems, and Toyota’s unprecedented recall. His surprising conclusion: There is little if any evidence for a Toyota sudden acceleration problem. Almost all of the documented cases can be attributed to driver error (e.g., using unsecured floor mats that slid against the accelerator, hitting the accelerator rather than the brake) or to actual hoaxes (see earlier reporting here, here, and here).

Today he has a new column in Forbes Magazine (print edition), reprinted here, that looks at complaints filed in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration database. The NHTSA database includes 93 deaths from 73 crashes that drivers and the media attributed to sudden uncontrolled acceleration. The media has taken these numbers as indisputable facts, but Fumento looked into the database and found that anyone can submit an incident report and that nobody verifies the claims. He writes: “Anybody can enter anything. An entry filed by someone named “Damnable Liar” claimed his car accelerated to the moon because of a child seat problem. That was mine.” Yet, media reports regularly cite the NHTSA database deaths as evidence for the sudden acceleration problem. The commentary is a fascinating look at how the media — and all of us — tend to be overly trusting of anecdotes and fail to look for the simpler, alternative explanations.

As we discuss in The Invisible Gorilla, people seek causes in the events immediately preceding a potential consequence. In this case, if someone has an accident, happens to be driving a Toyota, and has no simple explanation for why they crashed, they will now be far more likely to attribute the crash to a sudden acceleration. Tearful congressional testimony about the cause of a crash is compelling even if it might not have been accurate. Fumento does an excellent job of documenting the media hysteria and investigating other possible causes of some of the well-publicized crashes. Check out his reporting.

1 comment to Toyotas, media hysteria, and the illusion of cause

  • Mike Fumento passed along another great example from the NHTSA database. This time, a 2005 Corolla went back in time to April 1, 1973 and managed to kill 10 people by suddenly accelerating to 30mph. The NHTSA database is not a compilation of verified cases. Rather, it’s a collection of self-reported ones that include jokes, hoaxes, and possibly even reports by people who stand to benefit from the media frenzy. These are the complaints that politicians have taken as truth. Unfortunately, most reporters never bothered to verify whether these reports were legitimate before running with stories about runaway Toyotas. Some of these reports may well be true, of course, but many appear not to be.

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