A Short, Sad History of So-Called Sudden Acceleration

May 14, 2009
Audi 5000 by Flickr user Mark.Mitchell.Brown

Audi 5000 by Flickr user Mark.Mitchell.Brown

Every so often, the notion of "sudden acceleration" rears its ugly head. We've just countered the latest case on AllAboutPrius.com, but it's worth remembering the grandaddy of all such cases--and the damage it did.

In November 1986, the CBS news show 60 Minutes aired a dramatic segment that skewered Audi's largest sedan, then called the 5000, as fatally dangerous, due to its alleged tendency to accelerate out of control.

Because 60 Minutes couldn't get the cars it tested to replicate the "unintended acceleration", the show modified an Audi 5000 to behave as if it were accelerating out of control, then aired the segment.

The piece included the lurid tale of a mother who ran over her 6-year-old son. Images of wrecked Audis occupied minutes of air time. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration embarked on a lengthy investigation.

The agency concluded that because the Audi's accelerator and brake pedals were placed close together, inattentive drivers were confusing the two by pressing the accelerator when they intended to brake. Europeans, it should be noted, recorded no such incidents.

In the end, the NHTSA attributed the incidents to driver error, and closed their investigation. A halfhearted partial retraction from 60 Minutes made no mention of that conclusion.

But by then, the damage was done. Audi sales had plummeted after the segment aired, and it took the automaker a full 15 years to build its sales back to their 1986 level, and for the public image of runaway vehicles to fade.

Since then, government data show that injuries due to "speed control" issues have been reported for more than 100 separate vehicle models. But no car has ever been proven to have a design defect that would cause so-called sudden acceleration.

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

[SOURCE: Civil Justice Memo; PHOTO by Flickr user mark.mitchell.brown]

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