The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) still cannot determine what caused the unintended acceleration of a Toyota Prius last week in which a police officer was able to assist in bringing the vehicle to a stop without injury to anyone. In fact, when Members of Congress grilled Toyota representatives in several hearings, one of the reoccurring questions from Members was: Why didn’t you address the problem sooner. A legitimate question given the volume of complaints over the years but there are some trends that may shed light into what some are calling a serious lack of response. Theodore Frank, president and founder of the Center for Class Action Fairness writes that:

“The Los Angeles Times recently did a story detailing all of the NHTSA reports of Toyota “sudden acceleration” fatalities, and, though the Times did not mention it, the ages of the drivers involved were striking. In the 24 cases where driver age was reported or readily inferred, the drivers included those of the ages 60, 61, 63, 66, 68, 71, 72, 72, 77, 79, 83, 85, 89—and I’m leaving out the son whose age wasn’t identified, but whose 94-year-old father died as a passenger.

These “electronic defects” apparently discriminate against the elderly, just as the sudden acceleration of Audis and GM autos did before them. (If computers are going to discriminate against anyone, they should be picking on the young, who are more likely to take up arms against the rise of the machines and future Terminators).”

The Los Angeles Times article is available here. Megan McArdle adds:

“Here’s what else you notice: a slight majority of the incidents involved someone either parking, pulling out of a parking space, in stop and go traffic, at a light or stop sign . . . in other words, probably starting up from a complete stop. In many of the other cases, we don’t really know what happened, because there were no witnesses of exactly when the car started to run away.

In fact, it’s a little hard to be sure that some of the cases were sudden acceleration incidents, because the witnesses to what happened in the car were all killed; the family is trying to reconstruct what happened from their knowledge of the deceased. Obviously, most people are going to err on the side of believing that the car was at fault, rather than a beloved relative.

At any rate, when you look at these incidents all together, it’s pretty clear why Toyota didn’t investigate this “overwhelming evidence” of a problem: they look a lot like typical cases of driver error. I don’t know that all of them are. But I do know that however advanced Toyota’s electronics are, they’re not yet clever enough to be able to pick on senior citizens. Unfortunately, that won’t help Toyota much. It will still face a wave of lawsuits, and all the negative publicity means that it may be hard for the company to get a fair trial. Even if it does, the verdict in the court of public opinion will still hurt their sales for some time to come.”

More time will yield more information and hopefully more answers to the problem of unintended sudden acceleration. The good news for Toyota and consumers reaping the benefits of generous incentive packages is that the public appears to be standing behind the automaker. Sales in the United States are up 40 percent in the first ten days of March compared to the same time frame a year earlier.