Roy Exum: An Oscar For Rhonda

Thursday, February 25, 2010 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

The 82nd Annual Academy Awards are still 10 days away, but if Rhonda Smith, a Lexus owner from Sevierville doesn't win one after Tuesday's heart-wrenching performance at the Congressional hearings involving Toyota, then shame on every Oscar.

I'm on record as saying I think there is something afoot in the mysterious way Toyota has been slandered in recent weeks. Think about it. Not a year ago the Japanese leader was cited as the industry's benchmark, this just before the government bailed out General Motors and Chrysler. Suddenly this bashing just doesn't make sense and, meanwhile, my "NBS meter" is about to toss a spring.

On Wednesday, as I saw a picture of Rhonda wiping away tears in every newspaper from USA Today to the Chicago Tribune, I assumed my NBS ("nothing but smoke") device might soon be in for a recall. Oh my goodness! Rhonda is still-near hysterical after her accelerator allegedly stuck, but - what? - there wasn't an ambulance or a wrecker involved, nobody got sutures or even got hurt. No policeman wrote a ticket. Her biggest complaint, from all I can read, is that nobody believed her.

I don't have any reason not to believe her, but, my stars, I was sitting with my late-afternoon cronies the other day and the conversation turned to that undeniable tingle that befalls a man when a wheel suddenly comes off his car in mid-flight. A stuck accelerator, believe me, ain't nothing compared to the sight of your back wheel skipping past your front door as you zip down the highway.

My boy "Stony" said he was in the back seat of a $400 Jeep when it happened to him. "What did you do?" we all asked. "Kept drinking beer. I just kept sitting as (the driver) got it off the road." What about the wheel? "It hit an oncoming BMW right in the rear-view mirror. But it wasn't a big deal...everybody had insurance. I just sat and drank beer 'til the wrecker came." Then what? "Climbed in the wrecker and drank more beer." (This was before open-container laws.)

In Tuesday's testimony to the Congressional committee, Rhonda - under oath - said when her malady struck she literally called her husband Eddie once her Lexus reached 100 miles an hour "to hear his voice one last time" and thought her car was "possessed."

As I read her saga, my NBS meter was in such a tilt I feared the spring might snap unless, of course, Rhonda is now under the tutelage of a crafty, cash-driven lawyer who feels a certain 2007 Lexus in Sevierville, Tn., needs to be shoe-horned into a new recall pattern.

In my barn-yard way of thinking anybody who dares to call their husband at 100 mph and still cries over an accelerator incident in such a way her picture is splattered on every newspaper in the country actually needs considerably more "professional help" than a Lexus dealer can provide. C'mon, sounds like the "cruise control" hiccuped to me, but, bless her heart, Rhonda is still weeping.

Back to my cronies, another one - Alan - said when his rear wheel "left the vehicle" he was turning off the freeway and the tire caromed into some bushes on the exit. "It was funny, my old Blazer never sagged. The brakes still worked so stopping was easy. I got the loose wheel, called a wrecker, and a mechanic put it back on for $40. The mechanic told me that it isn't all that uncommon."

Well, methinks you are getting the point. Stuff happens - deal with it and move on. Toyota readily admitted "we stumped our toe." I hardly mean to make light of a problem, but, in my opinion, the huge auto giant is now over-responding to the hype and sensationalism of the fickle media. Toyota has recalled millions of vehicles, but, as the records will doubtlessly soon attest, only a very small fraction will actually require attention.

There was another moment in the hearings when David Gilbert, a college professor in automotive technology, testified he was able to get his 2010 Toyota Tundra to misbehave when he tried to do it on purpose. Think about that! Any of us can crash into a tree "on purpose." We can put a car in park while going 30 mph, throw the keys out the window in the middle of a curve, or whatever. The car will mess up. Tell the Prof I don't have his PhD., but I can do a lot "on purpose."

The thrilling part of Dr. Gilbert's appearance was all the dour faces nodded at his testimony, but - get this - not one asked why he, coming before the hearing as an expert, had chosen to buy a Toyota earlier this year when so many other brands and makes were available to his discretion. Hello? Watch my NBS meter dance.

Of course, the best of all was when Toyota chief operating officer Jim Lentz testified, saying he was embarrassed over "the apparent callousness," and then revealed his brother had died in a car crash 20 years ago and that "there is not a day that goes by I don't think of it." Can anyone honestly believe Jim Lentz would be party to selling an unsafe car?

My stance is that everybody needs to "get over it." Again, not to make light of the problem or deaths that may have occurred, but it's clearly obvious Toyota intends to fix any problems. Here's the truth: "when there are times like these - remember - there have been times like these." As a result, we have always overcome them, be it sticky accelerators, sliding floor mats or wheels that come off of old cars.

My goodness! Let's worry about health care and jobs and education. Let's not allow our eye to drift off the bigger bull's eye. It was also announced on Wednesday that home sales for January hit a record low - let Congress turn its worry to a flood of impending foreclosures because banks aren't lending money. Bottom line - Let Toyota tidy its own shop; they don't need our help.

And when the Oscars are doled out a week from Sunday, don't forget the stirring performance Rhonda gave after her Lexus became "possessed," her 100-mph phone call, and her crumbled Kleenex earlier this week. The envelope please!

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