Commentary

Celebrity scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson recently said the good thing about science is that it is true whether you believe in it or not.

Unfortunately, in misguided efforts to be impartial and favor “the little guy” over big corporations, the media, the courts and even Congress too often give dubious evidence equal time with science.

When being even-handed is more important than truth, a tragic story, a good lawyer and a sympathetic witness can overwhelm the facts.

This is the case with the fiction of sudden unintended acceleration and the claim it is caused by electronic “ghosts.”

There is zero scientific evidence to support the idea that vehicles suddenly can race out of control and overpower their brakes. Yet, the myth has persisted for almost 30 years, thanks to the efforts of trial lawyers and their skillful manipulation of the mass media.

Accusing an auto maker of having a sudden acceleration problem is the modern-day equivalent of calling someone a witch. And it can be very lucrative.

The mere accusation, along with a tragic crash, tearful victim and a story carefully packaged for the evening news, can cost a company billions in lost profits and stock value.

That makes auto makers eager to quietly settle such cases, sometimes for huge sums.

Trial lawyers understand this. For decades they have spent heavily on public relations and political contributions and helped fund advocacy groups to keep this phantom menace alive without proof.

Exhaustive studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. and other independent organizations have shown the cause of so-called sudden unintended acceleration is drivers stepping on the gas instead of the brake, along with a handful of instances where heavy mats trap the accelerator pedal, or gas pedals stick.

Tests by auto enthusiast publications have shown it is possible to brake almost any vehicle to a stop from up to 100 mph (161 km/h) with the throttle still wide open.

Now, the most comprehensive study ever of sudden unintended acceleration, conducted by NHTSA and the National Aeronautics and Space Admin., concludes there is no electronic cause for sudden acceleration in Toyotas.

That should be the end of it. But attorneys suing Toyota dismiss these findings as incompetence and insist electromagnetic interference and other causes are yet to be found.

Auto makers and suppliers have been testing their electronic systems against all manner of electromagnetic interference for years. NASA scientists thoroughly studied this angle during their nearly year-long investigation.

But no matter. The plaintiffs’ attorneys say the hacks they hired to prove their case know better.

It is not surprising lawyers attempting to win huge settlements from Toyota have the nerve to insist their “evidence” is more credible than NASA’s.

What should raise eyebrows is any news organization that still takes these discredited claims seriously.

Those of us who have covered sudden unintended acceleration since the 1980s know it is a sham and always has been.

But now that the government study is out, it’s time for everyone to agree that science is true and ghosts do not exist.

dwinter@wardsauto.com