The Department of Transportation’s preliminary findings from investigation into the data records of 58 Toyotas involved in unintended acceleration incidents received heavy media coverage, including over two minutes of airtime, total, between segments on all three major networks, as well as articles in major national papers, including one front-page article. The reports focused on the report finding no evidence of defects with the electronic systems, but usually included investigators’ caveat that the results are preliminary and that additional investigations are needed. A minority of sources noted that the data recorders may be unreliable or inapt for determining the alleged flaws in the electronic systems.
ABC World News (8/10, story 8, 0:20, Stephanopoulos) reported, “Some rare good news for Toyota tonight. Safety experts at the Transportation Department say that so far they have not found any new defects with the electronic systems and no problems beyond the floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals.” The CBS Evening News (8/10, story 8, :30, Couric) reported, “A preliminary Federal report out today suggests that in many cases drivers, not the cars, are to blame. The drivers may have hit the accelerator instead of the brake.”
USA Today (8/11, Woodyard, O’Donnell) reports that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said “the only causes of ‘unintended acceleration’ continue to be those already identified – sticky gas pedals or floor mats that can become trapped under accelerators.” This is “significant because Toyota critics have alleged that electronics might be at fault in cases of unexplained acceleration,” and “Toyota seized on the report as further proof of what it has contended all along – that engine electronics are not to blame for runaway cars.” In fact, of the 58 data recorders investigators examined, in 35 cases drivers had not braked at all .
The Washington Post /AP (8/11, Thomas) reports, “Olivia Alair, a Transportation Department spokeswoman, said the review of the black boxes was ‘one small part’ of the investigation, which is expected to be completed later in the fall.” She added “that experts with NASA and NHTSA were ‘conducting research at labs across the United States to determine whether there are potential electronic or software defects in Toyotas that can cause unintended acceleration.’” Meanwhile, “Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and NHTSA Administrator David L. Strickland briefed members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on the findings of the government review.”
The Los Angeles Times (8/11, Bensinger) reports that LaHood and Strickland “told three members of Congress in the briefing that the agencies had drawn ‘no conclusion’ on the causes of sudden acceleration and noted that investigations by NHTSA, NASA, and the National Academy of Sciences were ongoing, with final results a year or more away.” Additionally, “the reliability of black box data has been questioned by automotive experts and even Toyota itself, and the officials were careful to point out that it is only a piece of the puzzle when it comes to analyzing sudden acceleration.”
In a front-page article, the New York Times (8/11, A1, Bunkley) reports that investigators studied data recorders from just 58 vehicles. Also, Sean Kane, a Massachusetts safety consultant working on behalf of plaintiffs in lawsuits against the carmaker, “said many of the reported crashes happened at low speeds, often in parking lots, and would not activate the data recorders.”
From the American Association for Justice press release.