The Toyota Death Panel

Remember when our Toyotas went all “Maximum Overdrive” and tried to wipe us out last year?  Defective automobiles would suddenly accelerate without warning, putting the lives of helpless passengers on the line.  The media and government went ballistic.  War was declared on Toyota, complete with congressional hearings, in which Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood actually told motorists they should stop driving their Toyotas until the company could devise a solution to the problem.  (He swiftly walked his position back to “encouraging” the owners of suspect Toyota models to “contact their local dealer and get their vehicles fixed as soon as possible.”)

Toyota wound up halting sales on eight of its most popular models, including the Camry, one of the best-selling cars in the United States.  The New York Times reports the company paid $48.8 million in fines, and saw its sales drop 0.4 percent in 2010, making it “the only full-line automaker to report lower sales last year.”

It turns out these cases of “sudden acceleration” were not defects in Toyota automobiles at all.  After a 10-month investigation, the government concluded the incidents were mostly caused by floor mats interfering with the accelerator pedal, and drivers accidentally hitting the gas instead of the brakes.

Coincidentally, the same government that tried to burn Toyota at the stake over a manufactured “crisis” just happens to own a competing auto company.  No need to worry, because back when Ray LaHood was warning consumers not to touch the Killdozers lurking in their garages, a White House flack assured CBS News that the government’s stake in General Motors “would not have any impact on this Administration’s commitment to making sure that Americans are kept safe on our roads.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is, like every other government agency, always looking to increase its own authority.  Congressional Democrats just happened to be pushing a Motor Vehicle Safety Act last summer, and the narrative of demonic Toyota possession was very useful… so useful that the report exonerating Toyota has been buried by the NHTSA since July.

The Toyota scare was just the latest in a long series of orchestrated crises, in the tradition of the Alar scam of the 1980s, or DDT hysteria before that.  It’s very easy to provoke a media stampede against a large corporation.  The narrative plays into the anti-business biases of reporters, whose ears are hungry for the distant cry of trumpets calling them to battle in a populist crusade.  It also sits comfortably with the mythology of selfless government officials who Just Care Too Damn Much.  And, of course, rumors of predatory machines lurking in America’s driveways generate plenty of reader interest. 

The vindication of Toyota should be a huge story.  It involves millions of dollars in damage to a private-sector corporation, the suppression of exculpatory evidence, and a swarm of parasitic lawyers.  Instead, the news is treated like the correction to a minor spelling error in yesterday’s horoscope section of the newspaper.

The Toyota Death Panel didn’t have much trouble selling its judgment to a press corps that couldn’t wait to join in a good, old-fashioned rush to judgment.  The actual results of the government’s exhaustive investigation into Toyota automobiles are an afterthought.  The juicy story was told last summer.  Let this be one more lesson in the importance of distrusting the selfish motives of government agencies and dinosaur media outlets, every bit as much as you might distrust the corporations they attack.