Toyota Planted WSJ "Driver Error" Story. So What?

An unnamed spokesperson at NHTSA, the U.S. agency responsible for examining Toyota unintended acceleration problems, claims last week's Wall Street Journal story asserting "driver error" was the main cause, was planted by Toyota. It probably was. Good for them!

A Wall Street Journal article from this past week claimed that initial findings from the US Department of Transportation (DOT), of which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is a part, stated that drivers have been to blame for the unintended acceleration by pressing the wrong pedals. Basically, the initial findings indicate what we've been saying all along — Toyota drivers are old and can't tell the difference between an accelerator and a brake.

However, NHTSA, the body responsible for examining the Toyota pedal problems in the US, has firmly rebutted claims the story came from the safety organization. An anonymous NHTSA spokeswoman even went so far as to claim "that story was planted by Toyota" to the publication just-auto. She went on,"Toyota is the source - yes we know that for definite. It is [the] Toyota PR machine. We knew they were going to put it out."

We received a somewhat similar response — along with a claim that there were still months left to go in the investigation — when we spoke with a NHTSA employee (who wished to remain nameless) earlier this afternoon.

Well, duh. Of course it was Toyota that leaked it — the story quotes a "person familiar with the findings" (i.e. not someone from NHTSA) and it squares perfectly with the desire on the automaker's part to get a message out that it was driver error in 99% of cases of Sudden Unintended Acceleration. But, that doesn't mean it's not totally accurate. A New York Times interview of Toyota spokesperson Mike Michels by Nick Bunkley, that provided similar information to the data given to the Journal, seems to back this up.

Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies, an automotive safety research group partially funded by trial attorneys, is screaming bloody murder, claiming the Toyota story "seems to be paying dividends — literally. The automaker's stock rose 1 percent on the news and reporters scrambled to repeat the Journal piece..." But, frankly, it should do that. Evidence came out to support a narrative that is positive for the automaker. Toyota may make beige, boring cars that have bitten them in the backside, it's not their fault for trying to get a message out that it's their old, confused customers who're at fault in 99% of the cases.

Still, although the Wall Street Journal probably could have been a little bit less breathless in their coverage of what was likely a single-sourced story — I got to give them credit for pushing a story that totally follows the message we've had since our coverage began.

But the way I see it, the other two big players — NHTSA and Kane — have two diametrically opposite problems with the coverage. NHTSA's bitching about the process by which the Journal received the information. That sucks for them, but when the official report comes out in a few months, it too will get its time in the sun. The story's just too big for it not to.

My perception of Kane, on the other hand, is that he's bitching because this story severely hurts the narrative he needs to push for his clients. That's just too bad because it's beginning to look like his narrative's as lost as Toyota's blue-haired drivers are when trying to find the brakes.

Kane claims his "biggest concern about the WSJ article is that it implies that the examination of dozens of EDRs (that have never been scientifically validated) can somehow be extrapolated to exonerate Toyota of electronic problems in the nearly 38,000 complaints." True, but it'll likely exonerate them in a vast majority of cases, a point which, to Kane's credit, he has claimed from the start.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

NOTE: Story edited to reflect Kane's e-mailed quote.