Toyota: Not Safe “Enough” for My Loved Ones
When debating an issue, one can always impress the opponent—and oftentimes win the argument—by citing lots of numbers and statistics.
I was thus extremely “impressed” when Rush Limbaugh, in defense of the Iraq war, brought up the following statistics in an August 2006 radio talk show:
Now, the number of highway deaths in this country, 43,443 in 2005, is 40 to 50 times our troop losses in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Well, ten or 20 times at least. And a whole lot more deaths per month than any civil war in Iraq, if there was or is a civil war in Iraq. I don’t know whatever happened to “if it bleeds, it leads,” but there’s a whole lot more bleeding on our highways than in the war zone in Iraq out there, and a whole lot more dying going on in the American highway system than there is in the so-called civil war in Iraq.
A few months later, in January 2007, Limbaugh again made a brilliant comparison of American military deaths in Iraq, this time comparing them to Philadelphia’s murder rate.
Although Mr. Limbaugh did not change my mind on the Iraq war—I have continued to mourn every single American death in that war—he sure “impressed” me with his cavalier use of such statistics. I was so impressed that his words (and numbers) immediately sprang to mind when I read a couple of articles, also loaded with numbers and statistics, about the recent Toyota “sudden unexplained acceleration” problems.
First, in a column strangely titled “Toyotas Are Safe (Enough),” Robert Wright “does the math” and gives us some very comforting statistics:
My back-of-the-envelope calculations (explained in a footnote below) suggest that if you drive one of the Toyotas recalled for acceleration problems and don’t bother to comply with the recall, your chances of being involved in a fatal accident over the next two years because of the unfixed problem are a bit worse than one in a million — 2.8 in a million, to be more exact. Meanwhile, your chances of being killed in a car accident during the next two years just by virtue of being an American are one in 5,244.
So driving one of these suspect Toyotas raises your chances of dying in a car crash over the next two years from .01907 percent (that’s 19 one-thousandths of 1 percent, when rounded off) to .01935 percent (also 19 one-thousandths of one percent).
Wright bravely declares: “I can live with those odds.” And, for good measure, “… I don’t think it’s worth all the bandwidth the Toyota story has consumed over the past couple of months.” He adds, “Maybe we should get used to this kind of scare.”
After “suspecting” that “Toyota’s acceleration problems lie in the software — the ‘electronic throttle control,’” Wright discusses “beta testing,” and enlightens us that it is really a car’s motion that causes death:
Second, the fact that a feature of a car can be fatal isn’t necessarily a persuasive objection to it. One feature that all cars possess and that has been shown to cause death is motion. But we’ve decided that the benefits of automated motion are worth the cost of more than 30,000 American lives each year.
If my quotes have led you to believe that Mr. Wright is a cold-hearted person, I apologize. He isn’t.
After discussing the great trade-offs we have thanks to Toyota-like technology [“After all, high-speed motion will also save some lives (e.g. those of ambulance-driven heart-attack victims) and improve the quality of life in various ways. Life is full of trade-offs, and sometimes trade-offs involve death.”], including great mileage, Wright shows his more compassionate side:
Besides, good mileage means dollars saved, and dollars can be translated into human welfare. I could take the gas money I save via electronic throttle control and send it to Africa and save several lives.
Wright even manages to connect our “irrational worries” about the Toyota problem to terrorism and patriotism:
But it worries me that this Toyota thing worries us so much. We live in a world where responding irrationally to risk (say, the risk of a terrorist attack) can lead us to make mistakes (say, invading Iraq). So the Toyota story is a kind of test of our terrorism-fighting capacity — our ability to keep our wits about us when things seem spooky.
He concludes, “So go out today and buy a Toyota. It’s the patriotic thing to do.”
For those who, as Wright says, are still worried too much about “this Toyota thing,” another expert gives us some additional comforting data.
In a Los Angeles Times opinion piece titled, “Toyota hysteria. Reaction to its cars’ safety records is way over the top,” Michael Fumento, writes:
Sudden acceleration in Toyotas over the last decade has been linked with — which doesn’t mean “caused” — 52 deaths, according to NHTSA. It was just 19 before the current publicity. A Los Angeles Times investigation brought it up to 56, including those culled from lawsuits. Whatever the count and cause, that’s too many. But it’s also out of 20 million Toyotas sold, and out of the 420,000 Americans NHTSA says died in motor vehicle accidents that decade.
We should also take comfort in the fact that “although Toyota had almost 17% of total U.S. car sales in 2008, it accounted for merely 8% of total claims for deaths and injuries in the first quarter of that year, according to NHTSA.” And, “…while Toyota was third in U.S. car sales from 2001 through 2010, it was 17th in NHTSA complaints. Thus, even if every sudden-acceleration complaint proved valid, Toyotas are among the safest cars made.”
At this point I am very tempted to tell Mr. Fumento, “Tell that to the families of those who have been killed by the sudden acceleration problem in Toyotas”—but I won’t.
According to Fumento, we should also consider mitigating circumstances such as:
• Audi suffered similar sudden-acceleration “hysteria’ two decades ago.
• Toyota is the world’s second-largest producer… Despite getting bad press last year, it came out as far and away the top-quality automaker, according to Consumer Reports’ 2010 reader survey.
• Toyota directly and indirectly employs about 200,000 Americans, and directly invests more than $18 billion in this country every year.
And, of course, we should not forget that “… vehicle defects are just a tiny, tiny part of what leads to crashes, and “Whether it’s … defect or a child darting into the road, most crashes occur because drivers don’t leave an adequate safety margin.”
Finally, the inevitable (irrelevant) Limbaugh-like statistic:
“One hundred people are . . . killed every day, and it has nothing to do with technology, recent or otherwise,” says [Leonard Evans, author of the book "Traffic Safety"] “We can cut that number by half by concentrating on driver attitudes.”
I have two Toyotas. I love my Toyotas.
But, I also have family members whom I love even more. Loved ones who trust me to safely transport them to their destinations, whether it be school around the corner or for a vacation across country.
Messrs. Wright and Fumento, please don’t try to compare the 43,000 or more people killed in car accidents each year to those “very few” who have died as a result of a potential fatal flaw in the Toyota cars. Each one of those 43,000 fatalities occurred under different circumstances, often as a result of driver error or negligence.
Those 52 or more Toyota deaths to-date were all—everyone of them—probably caused by the same known or suspected—and probably preventable—electronic or mechanical problem. The drivers, tragically, had absolutely nothing to do with the cause of the accident.
Some statisticians tell us that in the United States, an average of 80 people are killed by lightning each year. That is quite a bit more than those who, so far, have been killed in Toyota sudden acceleration accidents. Perhaps we should be very thankful for another to-Toyota-favorable statistic.
No, Mr. Wright, my Toyotas, at this moment, are not “safe enough” for me and my loved ones. They will not be until Toyota admits, finds and fixes the problem.
And, Mr. Fumento, this is not “hysteria,” these are real concerns an American who owns two Toyotas has, concerns shared by millions other Americans.