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Toyota Sudden Acceleration: Is It All Older Drivers' Fault?

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Age distribution of drivers in 56 Toyota acceleration deaths, data from Jalopnik and Overlawyered

Age distribution of drivers in 56 Toyota acceleration deaths, data from Jalopnik and Overlawyered

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So-called "sudden acceleration" is an ugly mix of media frenzy, sophisticated engineering, and complex human-machine interaction.

But recent data on Toyota sudden-acceleration complaints seems to show--with some qualifiers--that the bulk of the incidents ending in fatalities have been reported by drivers aged 61 to 80.

Which leads to a very obvious question: Could it be that human error, not defective design, is at fault here?

Wrecked Toyota Prius owned by Elizabeth James, photo by Ted James, from Houston Press

Wrecked Toyota Prius owned by Elizabeth James, photo by Ted James, from Houston Press

Age clusters ...

This morning, our friends at Jalopnik posted a fascinating chart showing the age distribution of all the drivers in 56 deaths since 1992 that were linked by the Los Angeles Times to Toyota sudden acceleration.

And the chart is pretty revealing: The highest clusters are the 61-70 and 71-80 cohorts. The median age is 60, and just over half are 60 or older. That's against just 16 percent of drivers over 60 across all automotive fatalities.

They helpfully overlaid the average age distribution of deaths in all auto accidents, which peaks for drivers aged 22-30 and falls consistently thereafter. Death rates overall for drivers 61-80 are just one-third those of the 20-somethings.

Toyota's diagram showing how to properly install floor mats

Toyota's diagram showing how to properly install floor mats

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... with caveats

There are several caveats. The data does not represent all incidents reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), because those reports do not specify the complainant's (or driver's) age.

Moreover, the age distribution of all sudden-acceleration complainants should be mapped against the age distribution of Toyota buyers overall, to ensure it's not representative. But we're pretty confident that the average Toyota purchaser is not between 60 and 80.

New York Times op-ed

But it's not just one of those durned auto blogs that suggests age plays a big role. Two media outlets have recently carried opinion pieces reinforcing the continuing belief among automotive engineers that driver error is largely to blame.

The op-ed page of The New York Times, carried a lengthy article last week by Richard Schmidt, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, noting that driver error is almost always at fault in supposed sudden acceleration cases.

Based on his work in the 1986 Audi sudden acceleration case, he writes, "The trouble, unbelievable as it may seem, is that sudden acceleration is very often caused by drivers who press the gas pedal when they intend to press the brake."

Audi 5000 by Flickr user Mark.Mitchell.Brown

Audi 5000 by Flickr user Mark.Mitchell.Brown

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The Audi allegation

Toyota is likely haunted by the spectre of Audi's 1986 trials, when an inflammatory "60 Minutes" report led to scores of claims of so-called sudden acceleration. Audi's crisis management was a textbook case of what not to do--it clammed up, then it blamed drivers--but it was ultimately exonerated.

A long NHTSA investigation closed the books by saying the problem was "pedal misapplication," though it noted that Audi had spaced its pedal very closely together. By that time, Audi's sales had plummeted to numbers so low that the company almost pulled out of the U.S.

Audi subsequently installed an automatic shift lock, which prevents the car from being shifted into gear unless the brake pedal is pressed. Sudden acceleration incidents from standstill have plummeted in cars with shift locks, which Audi licensed to all carmakers.

[Overlawyered via Jalopnik; The New York Times; Los Angeles Times]


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Comments (27)
  1. To that I say, ever notice that teenagers also accelerate into garage doors?
     
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  2. @AARP: Ummm, dude, it's about the data. Look at the numbers. Yes, as the black line shows, people 21-30 are most frequently the drivers in fatal car accidents.
    So the fact that people 61-80 are the drivers in these so-called "sudden acceleration" cases is cause for--like the man sez--further investigation into not only potential mechanical causes, but also DRIVER ERROR.
    Or are you saying that of course no one over 60 EVER makes any errors on the road?
     
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  3. Great article. Thanks for going against the tide of the other media.
    To the teenagers getting into accidents. Well, they are novice drivers. You'd expect them to do something unbelievable if they're not used to driving itself. I'm scared to drive behind those "Driver Ed" cars. You'll be amazed what those kids will do. I admit that I was one of them though...
     
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  4. Surprise, surprise. We really need to make license renewals annual (or semi-annual) for people over 60. Complete with in-car driving test, visual test, and alertness test. There's just too much at risk--at some point, it's the state's fault for letting them out on the roads.
     
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  5. I think it's JUST as likely that the reason most DEATHS have occurred from this problem is that older drivers were slower or unable to respond to the very real problem of sudden acceleration. Younger drivers with perhaps quicker thinking were able to get out of the situation alive. I could see that I might be able to think sooner to put the car in neutral or turn it off than my senior citizen father would.
     
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  6. Although the stats are revealing, I would maybe suggest that is has more to do that with the fact that this age group has slower reflexes, panic more and are unsure what to do in such an emergency.
     
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  7. Great piece, very interesting. Had no idea that there was potential human error and other factors involved.
     
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  8. Scary old drivers come in two flavors. The first drive so slowly, convinced that if they drive slower they will not die in a huge fireball--they are occasionally, spectacularly wrong. The second, though much less frequent, is actually more dangerous: the speeding geriatric. Their logic is that if they drive fast enough they won't have to turn their heads to see other vehicles, since their noggins are largely immobile and they can scarcely move their eyeballs to check the mirrors. The giveaway is they are driving the biggest land yachts ever christened: 70's and 80's lincolns, cadillacs, chevy caprice wagons, nothing less than 2-1/2 tons. I dread becoming old, because I'm likely to fall into one of these camps, depending on how pathetic my health becomes. The upside is I might finally get to drive some bigass detroit iron.
     
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  9. If sudden acceleration accidents are a product of a 'senior citizens' age cluster, how is it that Buick is still in business?
     
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  10. make no mistake, the trial lawyers will make millions from this crisis if it is indeed mechanical and toyota is at fault - that is fine by me. make no mistake, the trial lawyers will make million from this crisis if it is NOT mechanical and toyota is not at fault - that is the tragedy that is america today. assume john edwards may be able to dust off his bar membership certificate and once again make 100's of millions of $ in class action suits.
     
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  11. @ Quasi - you actually been to the DMV lately? Its old people taking eye tests and illegals trying to get a drivers license. Everyone else goes to AAA. Testing the geezers every year just means one more appointment they have to make - the standards are so low that on a scale of 10, the pass level is a 2. If some of us due to driving classes, skill, etc, drive to a level of an 8 - it does not matter - we have to deal with the other idiots on the road.
     
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  12. Great article it makes alot of sense, seeing how so baby boomers are reaching into the last few decades they have, but why is it that toyota is the only automaker thats experienceing so many problems concering unintended acceleration well most other brands have little to no complaints regarding this issue. Which leads you to consider toyota still has an unresolved issue at hand. Toyota's always been a company with a solid reputation for the longivety & reliabilty of it's products, I really hope they can piece together the issue and offer more than an apologie to the people that have been affected by this problem.
     
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  13. I wouldn't be surprised at all if this is true. Heard so many stories of elderly drivers accidentally pressing the gas pedal instead of going for the brakes.
     
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  14. I saw that Onstar commercial earlier today when they stop the stolen Tahoe/Suburban. That got me thinking that toyota should install Onstar that way when th toyota owner gets confused about what pedal to push they can ask onstar to stop their vehicle for them. Then again if they aren't smart enough to push the correct pedal they probably can't push a blue button.
     
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  15. "The median age is 60, and just over half are 60 or older."
    That's what "median" means.
     
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  16. I couldn't agree more with this article. The media has gotten a good portion of the USA backing up this story when in fact, there are two sides to every story. It seems to me like the media is becoming more and more biased to the Toyota Recall that they wouldn't hear it any other way. We need our American Automaker's, but blowing stuff out of proportion, to kill to competitors is wrong and unsportsmanlike.
     
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  17. AARP: Overnotice the elderly over 80 swerve into other lanes cause I do. Jeeez they really need to bad all drivers over 80. sorry but i can recall 6 different occasions where I had to swerve cause an elderly driver nearly drove me off the road.
     
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  18. Why don't other car makers have this problem??.... I guess that nobody over 60 drives anything but toyota?????????? Wake up people!!!!!
     
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  19. Nice write up - By Joe517. My feelings are the same as yours and I am over 60. I live in Florida and have to say they have the worse drivers in the Country. People 85 can renew their license on line without even taking a test. When I was living in North Carolina I never saw drivers like there are in Fl. Needless to say, I can't wait to get out of this state and away from the pitiful drivers.
    If you lived here and did statistics, you would notice the majority of the serious accidents involve the elderly. Again, I also am over 60, but I am stating facts.
    Does this relate to the Toyota mess ? I don't have the answers there. Is the press bias on the reporting ? YES, thanks to Detroit, the UAW, looking to gain sales through any way possible.
     
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  20. Nice write up - By Joe517. My feelings are the same as yours and I am over 60. I live in Florida and have to say they have the worse drivers in the Country. People 85 can renew their license on line without even taking a test. When I was living in North Carolina I never saw drivers like there are in Fl. Needless to say, I can't wait to get out of this state and away from the pitiful drivers.
    If you lived here and did statistics, you would notice the majority of the serious accidents involve the elderly. Again, I also am over 60, but I am stating facts.
    Does this relate to the Toyota mess ? I don't have the answers there. Is the press bias on the reporting ? YES, thanks to Detroit, the UAW, looking to gain sales through any way possible.
     
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  21. Ford had more reported incident of unattended acceleration then Toyota.. but Toyota just happen to be surrounding target by mass media..Unattended acceleration been around for a long time, its nothing new.. and its 90% driver error. I garanteed other automakers has the same issue, but they're not the target interest.
     
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  22. My car suffers from intended acceleration. I just like to drive fast.
     
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  23. This is more of Toyota's "blame the victim" strategy. Slower reaction times, less muscle strength to push down hard on brakes, more likely to panic—it's no surprise that elderly drivers have a harder time saving themselves when they experience unintended acceleration. Toyota never marketed these vehicles as being appropriate only for stunt drivers. As far as the Audi history goes, Toyota actually did a good job designing the position of the brake pedal so that it is far away and at a different height from the accelerator pedal. It's not likely that someone could cover the accelerator pedal and at the same time push down so hard on the brake pedal that the brakes start to smoke.
     
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  24. "Why don't other car makers have this problem??.... I guess that nobody over 60 drives anything but toyota?????????? Wake up people!!!!! "
    Maybe you should be the one who should wake up. Other automakers in fact also have thousands of unintended acceleration complaints under their belts as well over the past few decades. In fact, Ford has 20 deaths cited in the complaints in the same time period that Toyota had 19 deaths cited in the complaints (pre-media hype). It makes you wonder what our government's priorities are, doesn't it?
    Just because it's not reported in the media doesn't mean it doesn't happen. Ugh.
     
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  25. U.S. regulators are investigating 10 recent cases in which owners of recalled Toyota vehicles say they brought their cars in for repair and yet still experienced unintended acceleration.

    I think if Toyota removes the Kamikaze chip from the computer, the problem will go away.
     
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  26. whiz and Steve, time to educate yourselves. ALL car makers have had these complaints, and all are driver error. The brakes will stop the car at full throttle.
    It's safe to assume the driver is pressing on something, unless they're completely clueless, so it's not an issue of having to override the engine with a mind of its own. It's an issue of getting their foot off the gas. Once you know the brakes will stop the car at full throttle, and that some pedal is being pressed, there's nothing left to debate.
     
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  27. I think there are many more instances of (for the lack of a better word) age-related mistakes between the gas (throttle) and the brake pedal, and these drivers do not admit there mistake to themselves (not stopping - push harder!). I was struck in such a manner by a 96-year mature driver who refused to admit it, but luckily there were witnesses. I continue to suffer for his mistake. I am still in PT after 1 1/2 years. He was driving an old Lincoln (note: no Toyota or floor mat involvement). He was rolling so slow that when he finally got close to the lane next to me (red light) he hit the pedal (wrong one) pushed it to the floor and swerved into my lane (there was nothing else he could hit). He said he just couldn't stop in time (what a joke he was moving under 5 mph and had a HUGE space). He should not have been on the road, and should admit it, as well as many others should too.
    AARP members, listen up. I tore up the application they sent me in the mail that same week. In CA they have lobbied strong and hard against testing seniors. All this about Toyota floor mats, etc. The senior issue has been around much longer and needs to be dealt with in a priority manner. The AARP lobby and constituents need to get a grip on reality!
     
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