As always when a major corporation is caught killing, maiming or poisoning innocent people, the apologists have come out in full force in defense of Toyota. This time, they’re blaming senior citizens.

You see, old people become confused. They don’t realize when they’re accelerating and when they’re braking. At least that’s what I’ve been told by the usual suspects.

Don’t buy it:

In the 50-second tape, crash victim Chris Lastrella begins by telling the dispatcher: “We’re in a Lexus … we’re going north (state Route) 125 and our accelerator is stuck.”

The dispatcher asks where they are passing, and Lastrella is heard asking someone in the car where they are. He exclaims: “We’re going 120 (mph)! Mission Gorge! We’re in trouble – we can’t – there’s no brakes, Mission Gorge … end freeway half mile.”

The dispatcher asks if they can turn the car off.

Lastrella doesn’t answer and says repeatedly: “We are now approaching the intersection, we’re approaching the intersection, we’re approaching the intersection.”

The last sounds heard on the tape are someone saying “hold on” and “pray.” Lastrella says: “Oh shoot … oh … oh” Then a woman screams.

Killed in the crash were CHP officer Mark Saylor and his wife Cleofe who were both 45, their 13-year-old daughter Mahala, and Lastrella, 38, who was Cleofe Saylor’s brother. All four lived in Chula Vista.

So much for blaming the victims for being too old to understand how to drive a car. A California Highway Patrol officer in his prime couldn’t stop one of those death traps, so he, his wife, his daughter, and his brother-in-law paid with their lives because, at Toyota, Safety Is Job #2.

That case conveniently didn’t make it into any of the articles blaming elderly drivers for the crashes.

Here’s something else the corporate apologists won’t tell you: lawsuits are the primary reason that cars are safer today than they were in the past.

In the 1970s and ’80s, litigation was watched keenly by manufacturers and regulators as a kind of early warning system on safety defects, said Kelley, now semi-retired and consulting on auto product hazards from his home in Pebble Beach, Calif.

Steered by lawsuits and safety standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration after its creation in the late 1960s, automakers corrected design defects that had exposed drivers to impalement on gearshifts and lacerations from shattered auto glass.

Also in the 1960s, seat belts became widely adopted by automakers and crash tests were refined into a serious science.

The 1970s provided automakers with a wake-up call in the Grimshaw vs. Ford Motor Co. case, in which a California appeals court ordered the carmaker to pay $125 million in punitive damages to the victims of one of the Ford Pinto’s fiery explosions. The huge punitive damages award followed evidence showing that Ford knew of the defect but failed to recall the vehicles for what was estimated to be an $11 repair. The award was reduced to $3.5 million in a post-verdict negotiation but nevertheless was one that signaled to the auto industry that it would be harshly sanctioned for ignoring known defects.

Improved seat belts and seat backs emerged in the 1980s, spurred by lawsuits brought on behalf of accident victims. Before three-point restraints were made mandatory a decade ago, back-seat occupants were prone to paralyzing injury when frontal crashes caused their upper bodies to fly toward the impact, smashing into seats, doors or other passengers.

Fact is: money talks. If it costs Toyota less to shuttle a few families to an untimely demise than to fix the problem, Toyota won’t do it.

Every time a car company today evaluates the safety of the car’s gas tank and fuel system, an engineer, manager or lawyer at the company inevitably says,

Remember the Ford Pinto cases.

Then they check the gas tank and fuel system again. And again.

Next time a car company investigates reports of sudden acceleration, which would you prefer that engineer, manager or lawyer says,

Remember the Toyota cases.


Is it really worth issuing a recall?


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