In 1986, Audi was nearly done in by a report on “60 Minutes” that purported to show the German automaker’s popular Audi 5000-S sedan had a serious and near-fatal problem. Drivers were reporting incidents of “unintended acceleration,” where the vehicle would suddenly accelerate to very high speeds from a dead stop when shifted from park into drive, or shifted from reverse into drive. Ed Bradley, who was the reporter on that segment, grilled Audi spokespersons about the incidents and the report strongly suggested the vehicle was unsafe. It featured interviews with six people who claimed their vehicles suffered from such sudden accelerations, with one woman claiming the problem caused her six-year-old son’s death.
The report devastated the company and sales plummeted in the United States. There was only one problem: none of it was true. In-depth investigations by both Transport Canada and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the U.S. found no evidence of mechanical or design problems in Audi’s vehicles. The cars were safe. In reality, the incidents of unintended acceleration were found to have been due to driver error. To this day, 60 Minutes has never truly acknowledged the full extent of is poor reporting.
Not to seem that I’m just picking on 60 Minutes, Dateline NBC in 1992 aired a report alleging General Motors pick-ups could explode in collisions because of a poorly designed gasoline tank. Again, there was a problem: it also was not true. Dateline NBC was found to have rigged a pick-up to explode so the producers could get dramatic footage of a pick-up bursting into flames when struck. This was a case of sensational reporting gone amok.
When stories began surfacing that some of Toyota’s vehicles may have a design flaw that cause incidents of unintended acceleration the same forces that battered General Motors and Audi came into play. Driven by the Internet and the modern 24-hour news cycle, the various media soon filled with stories of people claiming their Toyota vehicles were racing down highways uncontrollably even as they applied the brakes, or suddenly raced inexplicably forward. Numerous accidents are claimed to be attributable to the alleged problem, including some 89 deaths, according the Associated Press.
Like the earlier instances with Audi and General Motors, the reporting got ahead of careful investigation. The NHTSA has been studying data recorders from some wrecked Toyotas, and their preliminary investigation suggests that on those vehicles the brakes were never applied. It may be that many of the reported cases of unintended acceleration are the result of drivers mistakenly pressing the accelerator while thinking they were applying the brakes. While the NHTSA investigation is still ongoing – there remain questions around accelerators getting stuck on floor mats and many more incidents to investigate – this should give everyone pause. It is too easy to get caught up in the need to fill the ever-demanding news cycle with stories that are dramatic and based on what may be unreliable or mistaken memories of people, and not on careful investigation. Toyota may have problems, but it should not be hung-out-to-dry because of bad reporting and sensationalistic stories.