No guy ever forgets his first car. It could be a clunker, a jalopy, a chugging, grinding bundle of nuts and bolts – but a teenager’s reverence for his first wheels never diminishes. That car somehow lives on in technicolor memories of a hard won freedom that at one time opened the road to weekend travel, pounding rock music, uninhibited carousing and girls.
My first car was a white, used, Toyota Corolla, a gift from my dad received a few months following my eighteenth birthday. About to commence my first year at University and still living at home, my father grudgingly conceded the necessity of providing me with a means of transport for the 20 mile commute to campus, having absolutely no intention of undertaking that task himself.
The details of my adventures in that little car are now of course a legend in my own mind. But for whatever else those first few halcyon years of driving left me, they made me acutely aware of differences between various makes and models of cars. I started to notice how my friends had increasing problems with their Australian and British made cars, while my Japanese Toyota barely registered a mechanical fault. I drove that car for five years, never longing for anything else and never experiencing any other problem other than a blown gasket or occasional overheated radiator.
Perhaps that reputation for reliability is why I feel such anguish at the seeming crucifixion of Toyota as it struggles to clear it itself of charges of negligence in the deaths of 34 people caused as a result of sudden unintended acceleration in its vehicles. I have been waiting for weeks to read a defense of the car manufacturing giant, something our commentators seem loathe to do for fear of being seen supporting the avarice and incompetence of big business.
So it was with some satisfaction that I read Holman Jenkins Jr.’s wonderful column in today’s Wall Street Journal. Jenkins, who uses the device of inhabiting Toyota chief Akio Toyoda’s mind to reflect on the absurdity of the case that is being made against the company, points out some salient facts of which I was unaware:
- Eight of the 34 deaths are related to two crashes, one in which a San Diego dealer left the driver side floor mat installed upside down after being notified by a customer that is was a problem. The second occured when an epileptic drove his car into a lake.
- Toyota had indeed issued recalls and service bulletins related to floor mats and no incident of a runaway vehicle has been reported on any of the serviced recalled cars.
- Talk of an electronic bug, unrelated to the floor mats or the accelration pedal manufacture, is sheer speculation and has not been verified by anyone.
Moreover, the one thing that no one seems to be ready to investigate is actual driver error. What about when a driver becomes disoriented and pushes the wrong pedal, as occured on July 17, 2003 when 86 -year-old Russell Weller became confused, hit the accelerator instead of the brake and ploughed into the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market killing eight people?
Of the non-floor mat incidents, were there any other factors which could have led to sudden acceleration? Unfamiliarity with a new vehicle? Drowsiness? Inattention? As drivers, we all know that these things happen. They also occur while drivers are at the wheel of Toyota vehicles.
That is not to suggest that a thorough examination of the Toyota vehicle manufacturing process isn’t in order or that extra trouble shooting measures should not be undertaken.
But as we witness Akio Toyoda and his lieutenants twisting in the wind, perhaps we should spare a thought for the 50 years of exemplary service and superb craftsmanship of their company. It certainly does not deserve the opprobrium and disdain it is receiving today.