The Jeff Wise Blog

Do Toyota Drivers Suffer From Faulty Brakes, or Errant Panic Circuitry?

At first, it sounded like a straightforward case of a faulty product in need of a recall. Last summer, Toyota “‘became aware of rare cases where the accelerator pedal did not return to its idle position as swiftly as it ideally should.” It started changing the way it produced the pedals in question. Then, when it realized that further design issues could cause problems, it recalled 4.2 million vehicles. But the automaker’s problems didn’t go away. Within months, it realized that another problem with the pedals’ design could cause them to stick, and so started a recall of another 2.4 million vehicles.

Here’s where things began to get strange. Even as Toyota moved to correct problems with its accelerators, reports of malfunctions skyrocketed.

In one highly publicized incident, a 56-year-old woman in Harrison, NY was pulling out of her driveway when her car suddenly shot across the road and hit a stone wall. And there were many other such incidents. Indeed, after poring over reports filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the LA Times tallied 56 deaths related to Toyota accelerator problems. One accident victim, a 81-year-old woman, wrote:

ON 2/16, I WAS PULLING INTO A SPOT AT CVS. I TOOK MY FOOT OFF OF THE GAS PEDAL AND STARTED TO PUT THE FOOT ON THE BRAKE WHEN THE CAR SUDDENLY FLEW UP FORWARD OVER THE CEMENT CURB AND INTO THE DIRT AND BUSHES WHICH, THANK GOD STOPPED THE CAR.”

(Someone should do a study why the elderly so often write in all caps. Easier to read bigger letters? A holdover practice from the days of telegrams?)

The meme had gone viral. Suddenly, malfunctioning Toyota accelerators weren’t a rare, anomalous problem. They were a national scourge.

Almost simultaneously, however, a backlash arose. Observers began to raise questions as to whether the fault really lay in the machines, or in the drivers. Was it their brake pedals or their heads that were malfunctioning? Evidence began to mount that it was the latter. In the Harrison, NY, case, for instance, investigators determined that, contrary to the driver’s account, she had never actually depressed the brake pedal. Clearly, she driver only thought she was hitting the brake, when in fact she’d been stepping on the gas all along.

Fueling skepticism was the fact that the nation had been through a similar craze of “unintended acceleration” in the 1980s. That time, the culprit was Audis, not Toyotas. But, as in the Harrison crash, the incidents tended to occur when the driver first started the car. Richard A. Schmidt, who investigated many such cases, described his findings in the New York Times:

The problem typically happened when the driver first got into the car and started it. After turning on the ignition, the driver would intend to press lightly on the brake pedal while shifting from park to drive (or reverse), and suddenly the car would leap forward (or backward). Drivers said that continued pressing on the brake would not stop the car; it would keep going until it crashed. Drivers believed that something had gone wrong in the acceleration system, and that the brakes had failed. But when engineers examined these vehicles post-crash, they found nothing that could account for what the drivers had reported.

Schmidt concluded that the problem underlying these accidents was human psychology. Intending to depress the brake, the drivers made a simple motor error, misplacing their foot a few inches to the right. Fulling expecting the car to remain stationary, they become shocked when it behaves in a radically different manner. Suddenly finding themselves in a state of alarm, they are unable to think through what is happening. In cases of panic, as we’ve seen many times, activation of the amygdala causes the frontal cortex to shut down. It’s impossible to think clearly and to plan a rational course of action.

One form this cognitive deficit can take is “perseveration,” or the repeated performance of an action despite its demonstrated uselessness. I write in Extreme Fear that of the 27,000 muskets recovered from the field after the Civil War battle of Gettysburg in 1863, 90 percent were found to be loaded. Of these nearly half had been loaded more than once. Evidently the soldiers who carried them had gone through the laborious process of loading them again and again without ever managing to fire. Amid the deafening chaos of battle, the men simply resorted to what they had been trained to do. One gun was found to have been loaded 23 times.

In the case of “unintended acceleration,” a driver accidentally mis-places her foot, and then is so overwhelmed by surprise at the result that she just worsens the error by perseverating in depressing the accelerator.

The elderly are particularly prone to his problem. News accounts of senior citizens driving their cars into store fronts are a perennial on “wacky news” sites. The outcome is not always merely amusing. Most tragically, in 2003 an 86-year-old man drove his car into a crowded farmers’ market in Santa Monica, California, killing 10 people and injuring 63.

The notion that this same phenomenon is also behind Toyota’s alleged brake problem is supported quite vividly by the following graph, from Jalopnik:

The black line shows the relative overall accident rate for each age group. The red bars shows the number of Toyota accelerator accidents. If accelerator incidents were a normal type of accident, then one would expect them to follow the same general pattern as the solid black line. Instead, they skew heavily towards the elderly — just like incidents in which people mistake the accelerator for the brake.

So why are all these runaway-accelerator problems happening now? I’d suggest that the recession might be to blame. It’s long been known that cases of mass hysteria or panic tend to occur when a population is under stress. People in such circumstances tend to be poorly equipped to perceive the physiological toll that the stress is taking on them, or to recognize the cause when its symptoms begin to manifest. Then, a new malevolent force becomes identified in the popular culture, and at once they see a correlation between this new cause and their new illness.

Of course, running your car off the road isn’t exactly an illness, but the viral nature of the phenomenon indicates that drivers’ suggestibility must underlie the epidemic.

Unfortunately, by now Toyota has been tried, convicted and sentenced by the media, and stands to lose billions in lost sales. The reputation of a company once revered as a paragon of quality lies in tatters. It’s easier to blame a product, it seems, than to find fault in ourselves.

Filed under: Panic

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Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

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