Wait...Toyota might not be responsible for every accident ever?
Remember when it couldn't just be sticky gas pedals that caused Toyotas to accelerate uncontrollably? After large Toyota recalls made national headlines, some argued, there were just too many examples of speeding Camrys and Lexuses for these events to be about anything but deep corporate negligence -- instead of, say, an elderly driver losing control of his car or a distracted motorist mistaking the gas pedal for the brake.
The problem was huge. The whole industry, some alleged, knew that its electronic systems were vulnerable to electromagnetic interference, among other defects. Lawyers encouraged the sense that corporate wrongdoing was responsible for "thousands of these accidents" that kept "killing and maiming" people, implicitly offering vindication to drivers. Even if you didn't have a floor mat problem or a sticky gas pedal, that horrendous accident you caused might not have been your fault. Perhaps it was your cellphone. Or some lousy code written in Asia.
All of this had a way of exaggerating the importance of an unexpected and therefore terrifying scenario -- in which the car does too much of the driving for you -- instead of reminding Americans that poor judgment among drivers is a much bigger problem.
But government investigators reported Tuesday that there are no electronic defects in the recalled Toyotas. Even after they bombarded them with electromagnetic radiation and sorted through thousands of lines of proprietary software code.
So that accident was the fault of your sticky pedal or your intrusive floor mat -- not some unseen, deranged, HAL-like computer -- or it probably really was your fault, after all. Suddenly, the problem doesn't seem quite as sprawling.
Of course, Toyota still messed up on the mechanical defects it did build into its cars, and it's probably responsible for an unacceptable number of accidents. It should have taken early warnings about sudden acceleration seriously and sooner.
But the big point is that the explanation for many puzzling or tragic phenomena is more often mundane than novel, more often boring than terrifying -- and rather less convenient for those who want someone else to blame. Americans would probably be a lot better off if they spent more time keeping their eyes on the road than worrying about whether their car's going to pull a Herbie on them.
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