Whether it's due to competitive pressures or the fact mainstream journalists don't know much about cars, automotive safety stories usually represent journalism at its worst.
In the mid-1980s, there was the Audi sudden-acceleration debacle. Independent tests proved early on the Audi 5000 sedan would not go anywhere under full throttle if a foot was placed firmly on the brakes.
Given this fact, the explanation for “sudden acceleration” seemed obvious: Drivers mistakenly were stepping on the gas instead of the brake.
But that wasn't compelling enough for most reporters and television crews. There was too much human tragedy being trotted out by personal-injury attorneys and too many seductive stories about electronic gremlins creating demon cars.
The bad journalism culminated with the esteemed CBS “60 Minutes” news show doing a report so biased against Audi it could have been scripted by the Trial Lawyers Assn.
After years of investigating thousands of reported cases, the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. concluded sudden acceleration in the Audi 5000 was “pedal misapplication.”
Despite being cleared, it took Audi a dozen years to recover in the U.S.
Media misbehavior got worse in the 1993 furor over “sidesaddle” fuel tanks on General Motors' fullsize pickups.
In a report on the allegedly defective design of the tanks, “Dateline NBC” conducted a crash test that included putting a loose cap on the tank and attaching model-rocket motors to ensure a fiery blaze for the cameras.
GM engineers grew suspicious when they could not duplicate the blaze, and NBC producers would not allow them to examine the test vehicle.
A search of junkyards near the test site turned up the wreck and revealed the deception. That led to an unprecedented 3.5-minute on-air apology to GM by news anchors Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips.
Insiders called it the worst black eye for NBC News in its history. NBC's disgrace supposedly was a wakeup call for all journalists, but it did not last.
The 2000 Ford/Firestone tire fiasco showed many major news outlets put the search for truth in the back seat while they got cozy with trial lawyers and ignored key facts that favored Ford.
In his new book on the Ford/Firestone crisis, “Feeding Frenzy,” author Jon Harmon, a former Ford public relations official, says it was common for local and national news reporters to take damaging, misleading documents handed to them by trial attorneys and then trumpet them as a “scoop” on the evening news as if it were the product of a major investigation.
And now we have the Toyota sudden-acceleration story, which looks more like the Audi madness every day. Independent tests that show Toyota vehicles can be braked to a safe stop from 100 mph (161 km/h) under full throttle are being ignored.
Plus, the same sharks that helped lawyers gin up hysteria for lawsuits against Ford in 2000 are being quoted by reporters today as “consumer-safety activists.”
In the 1980s, Audi invented the shift interlock system and shared it with other auto makers to make sure drivers always put their foot on the brake before they put their cars in gear. The device eliminated “sudden acceleration” almost overnight.
The Ford/Firestone crisis led to mandates for tire-pressure monitors and electronic stability control, which promise to save thousands of lives every year.
Auto makers are learning from their mistakes. Unfortunately, drivers and journalists are not.
Drew Winter is editor of Ward's AutoWorld.