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
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
... 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
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.