(photo by Toyota)

News came two weeks ago that the “black boxes” in Toyota and Lexus cars and trucks, which constantly monitor and record every usage aspect of throttle and brake position, vehicle speed, engine temp and much, much more, are showing overwhelmingly that the vehicles involved in “unintended acceleration” accidents were wrecked because drivers were stepping on the gas pedal, not the brake.

Accidents attributed to unintended acceleration have been blamed on sticky throttle pedals, floor mats which held the throttle open, problems with the drive-by-wire system and more. The problems resulted in a recall of Toyota/Lexus cars and trucks which worldwide amounted to more than 8 million vehicles, easily the largest recall in automotive history.

The company says they have reviewed about 2,000 black boxes of affected vehicles since March.

But it’s not just Toyota which is reporting these results, which may appear favorable to the company. The Wall Street Journal reported the first week of July that National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) analysis of Toyota data recorders found cases in which throttles were wide open and brakes hadn’t been deployed.

In an interview on NPR, a WSJ reporter said that NHTSA has found that “100 percent” of the Toyota black boxes seen by the agency so far have shown driver error was the cause of every accident. It’s not known exactly how many black boxes NHTSA has examined.

This reports will stir up some very interesting conjecture focusing mostly on the politics of this massive recall, which has forever changed the way the Japanese industry will handle bad news coming from their own companies. And we also need to talk about one of world’s biggest problems — how some of us just stink as drivers.

First, the politics. Toyota chieftain Akio Toyoda being grilled in front of a congressional committee was nothing short of a nation-changer for the people of Japan. CEOs simply don’t do that … in Japan. Well, at least they didn’t do that in the past.

They bow silently when there’s a problem (but only if they get caught) and everything having to do with whatever the problem is becomes the past; in the publics’ view, the head of the company has taken responsibility and it’s time to move on.

And of course we’d expect this kind of report pointing to driver error coming from Toyota but the reports that NHTSA has come up with similar findings creates trouble, particularly for NHTSA and the congressional committee involved.

And if Toyota is cleared, what does NHTSA, and for that matter, congress, do? They can’t simply apologize and kiss it good-bye. And more than that, NHTSA can’t be seen by the American people as soft and simply acquiescing to Toyota; not after the agency finally got some gumption and opened serious investigations into the problem.  

Congress very loudly and publicly went after NHTSA, and we all got caught-up in the momentum and started to believe that NHTSA was literally asleep at the wheel in spite of the Toyota/Lexus problems becoming public. And no matter the truth, two ex-NHTSA employees going to work for Toyota as advisors didn’t go down very well with Americans.

Then there’s the feeling in Japan (stoked by the media) of our congress going after the company in an effort to hurt their sales and create more buyers for domestic cars and trucks.

So what at first seemed like simply a very large recall became nothing short of what was called during the Cold War an “international incident” involving congress, the world’s largest car-builder and tens of millions of car owners worldwide. It all became terrifically complicated and in many cases brought out the worst in the Japanese and Americans.

Then there are the deaths, gruesome, emotional and of course frightening and undeniable.

Which brings us to what’s a huge worldwide problem whether or not this Toyota recall and spectacle ever existed.

This problem is that many of us are bad drivers, the kind of people who, when meaning to stop, hit the accelerator instead.

I frequently talk and write about how many other nations, particularly in Europe and Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia, have mandatory and intense driver education programs with severe testing. Many of those drivers are more than well-prepared for the task at hand when license time comes. Here in the U.S.A., obtaining a drivers’ license is not much more difficult than finding the local DMV office.

But people were killed crashing their cars and trucks throughout the world throughout this Toyota fiasco, leaving us with a truth: there are a lot of bad drivers everywhere, no matter the education and testing.

If these reports from the black boxes are true, if these “unintended acceleration” incidents show driver error caused many of these wrecks, it seems altogether possible that Toyota can come out of all this smelling like a chrysanthemum. That’s the name of the throne on which the emperor sits.



In last week’s article on the Nissan Leaf, we accidentally said the car’s battery would be covered by Nissan for up to eight years. Well, that was GM. Nissan has not yet announced the warranty on the Leaf’s battery. According to the NY Times this week: “On the basis of a consumer survey it sent out last week, Nissan may be feeling the pressure to match the recent surprise announcement that the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid will come with an eight-year, 100,000-mile battery warranty.”

Steve Parker is a two-time Emmy Award-winner who has covered the world’s auto industry and motor racing for over 35 years. Contact Steve through his own automotive issues website at www.SteveParkerMotoring.com.

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