Commentary

In August 1987, a McDonnell Douglas MD82 taking off from Detroit Metropolitan airport crashed and killed more than 150 passengers and crew.

Incredibly, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled the horrific crash occurred because the plane’s flaps were not extended. It is hard to believe a pilot and flight crew could make such a flagrant error.

Two decades later, the same model plane crashed in Madrid, killing more than 150. Again the NTSB said the pilot forgot to put the flaps up before takeoff.

Planes crash every year. Pilot error is the most common reason.

Plane crashes usually do not result in a public outcry that the plane, not the pilot, is at fault. The public understands that even experienced pilots have lapses.

Add pressure, panic or distraction, and anyone can make an inexplicable mistake.

But suggest the cause for sudden unintended acceleration in Toyotas is drivers stepping on the gas instead of the brakes and you likely will be met by an indignant chorus of “What, you’re saying all those drivers are stupid?”

After more than 20 years of studying thousands of SUI cases, the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. and other organizations have not been able to find a cause for SUI other than “pedal misapplication” and the fact rubber mats can shift and trap the accelerator into a wide-open position.

Even so, enthusiast publications such as Car and Driver have shown cars can be accelerated up to 100 mph (161 km/h) and braked to a complete stop while still under full throttle. Engaging neutral or shutting off the engine also solves SUI.

Yet, most consumers remain skeptical, believing an electronic defect can cause a vehicle to overpower its brakes and accelerate out of control.

A key differentiator between the public’s perception of pilots and drivers is that planes are equipped with flight data recorders. So-called black boxes have a history of providing credible evidence of what really happened in a crash.

Newer vehicles only have a rudimentary ability to record crash data, but it already is paying off.

The Wall Street Journal reported in mid-July a U.S. Department of Transportation examination of vehicle-data recorders so far shows that in Toyota and Lexus vehicles claimed to have accelerated out of control while the driver was braking, the throttle was wide open and the brake pedal was not depressed.

This news was greeted mostly by cynical headlines saying Toyota is blaming drivers for its accelerator woes.

It is very likely that in the coming months all the government organizations investigating Toyota’s electronic throttle and SUI issues, including the USDOT, NHTSA, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Aeronautics and Space Admin., will say they cannot find an electronic defect and that floor mats and driver error are the causes of SUI in Toyotas.

But it will be a pyrrhic victory. The news will help Toyota defend itself in court, but the auto maker’s shining patina of quality, reliability and wholesomeness has been tarnished. It may take years to recover.

In the meantime, Toyota can hope the improved data recorders that soon will be required on all vehicles will someday reveal human frailty is a vehicle defect that cannot be fixed by a recall.

dwinter@wardsauto.com