Toyota’s recall problems for sticky gas pedals, sudden acceleration and now complaints about electronic brakes remind me of an incident long buried in my memory.
It was back in the Pleistocene era, when cars still had fins. My mother was driving several of my grade-school girlfriends home after a sleepover at our house. We were traveling down a steep hill on a 2-lane highway when the brakes gave out as we neared an intersection.
This was a time before antilock brakes, airbags, seatbelts and plastic dashboards, when cars were made of steel and big as dinosaurs. We kids weren't aware of the potential danger, as my mother was not given to panic.
Instead, she managed to safely steer through the intersection and bring the car to a stop. Only then did she tell us what happened.
Whom she called (no cell phones) for help and how we got my friends home is lost in time. What I do remember is my parents considered the car broken and in need of the local mechanic.
They never thought to complain to government safety regulators; there were none. Call the car company? Why? Bring it back to the dealer. Hardly.
Nothing much changed in the ensuing years. One of our cars saw the power steering give out, another the manual gearbox wouldn’t shift and a third the tread peeled off a tire – all while driving down the highway. These were not used cars, they were new models.
Car owners back then expected their vehicles to be faulty. There was no Internet, no chat rooms, Facebook or blogs, and few choices in new cars, other than those from the Big Three.
It wasn’t until 1965, when Ralph Nader published “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile” that the notion of consumer advocacy took on legitimacy.
But it took the Japanese auto makers to set the bar for safety and quality. The U.S. car companies had no choice but to follow suit, as empowered car buyers voted with their pocketbooks and Toyota came to rule the land.
I’m not suggesting Toyota’s current safety problems should be dismissed. Far from it. Any time a car company recalls 8 million vehicles worldwide, it’s deadly serious. But a little perspective can’t hurt.