For Toyota, the glare of public scrutiny won't go away any time soon because legislators, regulators, owners, lawyers and safety advocates continue to bash the automaker for its handling of safety defects.
But while Toyota is in a mess largely of its own making, it is important for critics to remain reasonable and avoid a mob mentality. It won't be easy.
Toyota already faces a battery of lawsuits that will generate waves of negative publicity and provide grist for comedians and cable TV commentators. Toyota and Lexus owners, egged on by a pack of plaintiffs' lawyers, are involved in a multitude of individual and class-action lawsuits involving the safety of their vehicles. They have lodged claims against the automaker for everything from personal injury to lost resale value.
The situation is so inflamed that this week in San Diego there will be a conference of plaintiffs' lawyers who plan to share tips on how to sue Toyota successfully over "sudden acceleration."
Some lawyers hope to link the cases, prompting Toyota to settle by writing one or two huge checks rather than deal separately with each suit. Those lawyers compare lawsuits against Toyota to those against Big Tobacco.
Clearly, Toyota brought this on itself by repeatedly underplaying reports of unintended acceleration over much of the past decade. The company had more complaints than other companies. But while in some cases there were few reports and no accidents, Toyota was cavalier about the reports and did little or nothing -- in part because the automaker's leaders in Japan turned a deaf ear.
That has come back to bite Toyota in a big way.
Now that Toyota is in the unaccustomed position of being in a fishbowl, every flaw from the past gets dredged up and magnified. That is to be expected.
But we shouldn't jump to conclusions about dramatic new reported cases of unintended acceleration. More legitimate complaints may surface. But under the best of circumstances a significant portion of unintended acceleration cases are caused by driver error. And now that Toyota is wearing a big target, crazy people, neurotics and scam artists may find it fun or potentially profitable to drive really fast and claim unintended acceleration.
This doesn't let Toyota off the hook for past failures. But the legal and regulatory processes must play out fairly; this is no time to lynch Toyota.