Racing legend Jackie Stewart says some people would rather admit to be being bad lovers than bad drivers.
He's probably right. Not only do Americans refuse to admit ineptitude behind the wheel, they find it difficult to accept other driver's screw-ups as well, especially when they result in tragedies.
How else can the phenomenon of “sudden acceleration” be explained? For decades, errant drivers have been crashing into buildings, mowing down pedestrians and otherwise wreaking havoc and then claiming it was the car's fault.
In recent times, drivers frequently allege “unintended acceleration.” They say they were driving normally when their vehicle suddenly raced out of control and caused a crash.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. has investigated thousands of such occurrences over the years. Its conclusion: “unintended acceleration” is the result of mistakenly stepping on the gas pedal instead of the brake, or the accelerator pedal being accidentally trapped under a heavy floor mat.
Whenever the term comes up, the Audi logo usually is not far behind. It should be a grim reminder to keep facts straight and emotions in check.
Audi is the most famous victim of bogus unintended acceleration claims. In the mid-1980s, a woman crushed her young son against the back wall of her garage with her new Audi 5000. She claimed the car accelerator stuck, and she was unable to stop the car with the brakes.
Once that case was publicized, there soon were hundreds of similar claims of Audi cars running amok.
Audi's response — calling its customers bad drivers and not talking to the media — has become the script for what not to do in the face of unintended acceleration charges.
The media's response, taking an advocacy role and becoming an unwitting ally of product-liability attorneys, also is a model of bad behavior.
NHTSA eventually agreed with Audi that driver error was the problem all along, but by then the brand's reputation was so damaged it almost pulled out of the U.S. It took 10 years to rebuild its image.
Now there has been another horrific crash. In late August, an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer lost control of a Lexus ES 350 loaned from a dealer. He and his three passengers were killed.
An oversized rubber floor mat is suspected of jamming the accelerator. As a result, Toyota is recalling a record 3.8 million vehicles. But trouble is brewing. Journalists sense a big story, and product-liability attorneys smell money.
So far, Toyota is doing everything right. It is expressing sympathy for the victims and concern about product safety. And, most importantly, it is not throwing blame on the driver.
Even so, Toyota must force a reality check and point out driver error is a significant factor. The tragic crash could have been avoided by simply shifting into neutral. Every driver should know that, certainly a police officer.
But as the auto industry learned the hard way with Audi, an auto maker should never accuse a customer of being a bad driver. That's just something Americans do not want to hear.