Out to lunch with Diana Foote: Car troubles bring back haunting memories

The Center for Auto Safety is the nation’s premier independent, member driven, non-profit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to improving vehicle safety, quality, and fuel economy on behalf of all drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

By Diana Foote 
March 10, 2010

Here in Vero Beach, my mother-in-law drives a 2008 Toyota Avalon.
Reports of sudden, unintended acceleration pushed our family to demand immediate service, even before she received a recall letter. Toyota graciously complied.

I have a history with sudden acceleration that has haunted me for 18 years.

April 23, 1992. Sunny and sublime in NYC. Winter was banished. Horror would replace it. In Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park, hundreds of students, magicians, mothers with strollers, cranky old men and eccentrics congregated. My mother and I drove the half-block to my apartment. I left the vehicle. She was going home.
Then my mother’s life ended as she knew it.

The noise was surreal. I ran into the street, chasing her accelerating car into the park. Bodies were strewn around the benches.
An imposing statue of Garibaldi finally stopped her Oldsmobile Delta 88. Bodies were under both the front and back tires. Bystanders would lift the car in front to extract them. Then screams would emanate from the back, as those people were crushed even more.

Five were killed. An unfathomable 27 more were injured, many severely, including a Juilliard dancer who lost a leg. Headlines screeched “The Washington Square Massacre.” Posters appeared demanding my mother’s death.

She maintained with calm vehemence that her car was at fault. (In 1999, General Motors stopped producing it.) Five years of legal battles ensued. On the day before her testimony at trial, GM settled with the victims and their families. The documents were sealed, but attorneys unofficially told us we that GM paid out hundreds of millions of dollars.

The principals were forbidden from talking about the case. My mother couldn’t clear her name, something she regretted every day until she died in 2004. The year before came a book, “Sudden Acceleration: The Myth of Driver Error,” co-authored by Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.

During my mother’s ordeal, Ditlow sent us classified reports of many cases of sudden acceleration involving her Oldsmobile model, including a chilling report of a customer testing the car in a showroom who helplessly accelerated through the dealership’s plate glass window.

Toyota has my heartfelt gratitude for addressing a problem that has plagued America since the 1980s. Now all auto manufacturers must promise to put people’s lives before profits.

Eighteen years ago, five lives were snuffed out; 27 more were left with unfathomable pain and mangled bodies.

I am thankful my mother-in-law’s car has been modified. Naturally,
I’m still nervous. I entered Dante’s Hell on that beautiful spring day when my own mother’s car just wouldn’t stop.

Diana Foote writes weekly on life on the Treasure Coast. Contact her at [email protected].