Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Ford Pinto - An Example of Media Hysteria

Ford Pinto.jpg

It turns out the Ford Pinto wasn't really any more unsafe than any other small car of its era, and in fact, safer than many.

It is funny, but you see these "listicals" and "sponsored content" online that exhorts you to click on their slideshow of the "50 worst cars ever made" - which of course requires you to scroll down through 50 pages of animated ads and crapola (which generates pageviews for them, and some accidental click-counts on ads as well).  In every one of these click-bait articles, cars like the Chevy Vega are mentioned - for its tendency to rust in early years, and its flaky engine that blew up after 60,000 miles.   The Ford Pinto also makes the list perennially, supposedly because it would "blow up" when rear-ended.  It is a reputation that is really not deserved, but hard to shake.

With the hindsight of time, we can look at actual traffic statistics and realize that the Pinto had pretty average crash and death rates compared to other small cars of the era.  The rear-end fire rates were only marginally higher than other cars of its size - small enough to be statistical error.   Cars back them - of all makes and models and sizes - put the gas tank behind the rear axle, as this made more room in the car.   Often the filler pipe was hidden behind the rear license plate as a "convenience" to motorists, who no longer had to remember "which side" the fuel filler was on.   It made no difference if it was a Pinto, Nova, or Chevy Caprice - all had the rear tank mounting.   It was only in smaller cars that this presented more of a problem.

In that same era, GM mounted gas tanks on the outside of the frame of pickup trucks, helpfully offering dual tanks as an option - one on each side.   If you were T-boned, well, it might mean a fuel fire would ensue.   But again, statistically in retrospect, we found that the incidents of fire in those trucks was not significantly greater than in others.  So why the bruhaha?

In both the sidesaddle and Pinto cases, there were "tests" conducted which showed explosive fires erupting from these cars.   In the GM case, it was later found out that the testers left the gas cap off the gas tank and actually ignited the fuel with a spark plug - essentially turning the pickup truck into a car-bomb.   In the Pinto case, it turned out the testers put weights in the "bullet" car to insure the bumper rode beneath that of the Pinto and that the headlights were on as an ignition source.   Other similar cars, of course, were not tested - the Pinto was picked out for special abuse.

Why was this?   It is hard to say.  The media loves good eye-candy videos, and once the narrative of the "fiery Pinto" was established (along with jokes on late-night talk shows) it was hard to shake.   Compounding this was a memo prepared by Ford in response to proposed changes to rear-end collision rules, which analyzed overall costs to society as a whole (not Ford) from rear-end collisions, versus the cost of trying to improve rear-end crash safety.    Some media outlets, including the notoriously right-wing Mother Jones conflated this as reading that Ford was willing to let people die or be burned horribly to save $11 a car.   The so-called "Pinto Memo" was touted as an example of corporate callousness, at a time when corporations were being called onto the carpet for dumping toxic chemicals or allowing poison gas to kill thousands in India.  Ford made themselves a convenient target.

Did the Pinto debacle change anything?   Well, to be sure, we no longer have rear-mounted gas tanks in cars or side-saddle mounted gas tanks in trucks.   Fuel safety has improved dramatically over the years, but of course, car fuel fires can still occur in collisions that are violent enough, or if the car is hit just right in the right places.  The design of the Pinto fuel system was primitive and unsafe - but so was that of the Vega, the Gremlin, the Datsun, the Toyota - and let's not even talk about the deathtrap that was the VW Beetle.   But hey, back in the day, it was "cool" to bash American corporations, while driving your hippie Beetle, designed and built by Nazis.

The point isn't that the Pinto was a safe car - like most cars of its era, it would be deemed quite unsafe by today's standards.   The point is, the Pinto was singled out for particular abuse by the media and the question is, of course, why?   Was this an example of media mass-hysteria?   I think so, and the lessons from that are important today.   Media outlets seize on a story and won't let it go.   Each repeats what the others are reporting, amplifying the story as they go along.   If the story gets "refreshed" before the end of the "news cycle" it may have "legs" and linger on.

Back then, as today, reporters didn't have the resources to do actual research.  They merely repeat what others are saying - the wire services, the other networks, the other papers, the other reporters.   If a personal-injury attorney with an axe to grind comes to them with compelling video of a car blowing up into a fireball, that leads the news at 6:00. 

Today, not much has changed.  Reporters show up for work, which is to say they get of bed, get coffee, and then waddle down the hall to their home-office in their pajamas.   They check the wire service reports, the latest Twitter feeds, the latest Facebook posts, and what's happening on Reddit and then decide to write a story.  They might e-mail someone who they can quote, or even call them on the phone.   Then they start a-typin'.   The old days of "investigative reporting" - if it even existed (would Woodward and Bernstein have a "story" without Deep Throat?) are long gone.   Reporters today wait for a press release to copy verbatim, provided it is accompanied by some compelling pictures, or preferably video.

Were there people who specifically set out to target Ford?   This is a possibility.   Like I said, personal injury attorneys love this sort of thing, and the "Pinto Memo" is enough to convince juries of coporate malfeasance whether or not there was any.   It is like the McDonald's "hot cup of coffee case" - their coffee, it turns out, was no hotter than others, and today is the same temperature (and indeed, Starbucks' is the same as well).  The only difference is, today cars have cupholders and old ladies don't need to use their crotches for this purpose.

But there could have been other causes.  Recently, a complaint was filed with NHTSA saying that Tesla cars are crashing as a result of the "auto pilot" feature.  Sounds like a routine thing, until you realize the guy filing the complaint is a famous short-seller of Tesla stock.   Act shocked.   It makes you wonder if similar things could be at play in the Pinto case or the sidesaddle case or maybe hundreds of other cases that we never hear about because people were paid-off, Stormy Daniels style.

Oh, that, right.  Her attorney is now rotting in jail where he should be, in part because he tried corporate blackmail on Nike to the tune of $20M.    This sort of thing goes on - reputation blackmail.  The next time around, before you grab a protest sign and decide to march in the street, ask yourself whether the issue you are protesting isn't in fact advancing someone else's agenda.

But in other cases, like I said, it is based on public perception versus reality.  Ralph Nader wrote a seminal book on an unsafe rear-engine car.  No, not the Corvair, the VW Beetle!  The Corvair book came later, and it recounted the design defects in that car that were copied slavishly from Beetle chassis design.  The first book was a flop, the second a hit.  And likely you never knew about the first book, or that the Beetle was such a deathtrap.  In fact, since the VW sold in much larger numbers than the Corvair, it was a far greater danger to the public.  But somehow VW escaped the wrath of the public, which perceived it as some sort of hippie-friendly company (much as Subaru is today) and GM was pilloried.   VW good, GM bad!

But reality - and truth - are not as exciting or sexy as mythology.   I've run into a lot of people who tell me the Corvair was "unsafe at any speed!" but cannot articulate why (it has to do with swing-axle design, but I've lost you already, right?).   Similarly, they will tell some joke about exploding Pintos, but get almost angry when you explain to them the Pinto wasn't, in fact, a fiery deathtrap.  You've ruined the punchline to their joke and no one likes a kill-joy, right?

On the internet today, they call such mob-vengeance "pitchfork justice" but that doesn't mean it doesn't occur anymore.  Someone posts a story about outrage, and people pile-on with their self-righteousness.  A black couple was refused seating at a Dennys!   A Policeman was denied service at a Starbucks!  A member of the military didn't get extra breadsticks at Onion Garden! Light the torches!  Gather your hay rakes and pitchforks!  To the castle!  Kill the monster!

Not only are we still subject to media hysteria, it seems today that's all the media reports.