Recall Problems

You may have heard the news: Cars that accelerate inappropriately down local streets, veer out of control on rural highways late at night, fail to brake in time to strike a pedestrian, follow lead vehicles too closely to stop in the event of an emergency, and so on. There was a technical problem in all these cases, but one that, I’m afraid, is difficult to fix with a factory recall, for I’m talking about the human decision-making apparatus. Towards this end Leonard Evans provides some much-needed perspective about the Toyota recalls:

Consider: According to various reports, 19 deaths have been associated with Toyota’s gas pedal problem over the past decade. But over the same decade, a total of 21,110 people have been killed in Toyota vehicles, with an additional 1,261 killed in Lexus cars (based on analyzing 1999-2008 fatality data from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). Almost none of these deaths had anything to do with technology, faulty or otherwise. Almost all of them were the result of driver behavior.

Even the claim that the 19 deaths were “linked” to the defect in no way implies that it was the main factor.

Seventy years of scientific research has shown that what drivers do behind the wheel is the dominant factor in traffic deaths. Speed, for example, is a critical factor in safety. An almost imperceptible reduction in speed from 52 mph to 50 mph cuts the risk of being killed by 15 percent. That’s more than the risk reduction from airbags.

So if the prospect of a sticky gas pedal alarms you, just slow down a little. The result will be that you are safer with the defect than you were without it.

Obviously, deaths linked to faulty cars are a serious problem, and it’s also clear that if attention is not paid, the safety problems could grow much worse. And still, however, I am struck by the sheer volume of the coverage about Toyota — almost verging on a panic — given the comparative risk posed in the numbers above. The study of risk perception is instructive here: Risks seem to loom larger in our imagination when they are novel, and when they are seemingly out of our control, among a host of other factors. Toyota is certainly novel, and the idea that an accelerator might suddenly activate on its own fills us with much more dread than the calculated decision to drive very fast down a street — itself a risk for the drivers and others but seemingly under one’s own control.

There’s a larger story here too, of course, which I was talking about last week with a writer for the Globe and Mail; i.e., the kind of shattering (or cracking) of a mantle of sheer confidence in not just the Toyota brand but the idea of the modern automobile as more or less infallible. When I think of my MacBook Pro or iPhone, I think of wonderful devices that are also prone to bugs (the later device had to be swapped out three times). But thinking about my Subaru, another incredibly complex device, I basically expect that as long as I take it in for its regular maintenance plateaus, I do not expect to encounter any difficulty on the road (needless to say, the experiences at the Genius Bar and Subaru dealership are distinct; one is tense anticipation as I wait to hear the diagnosis, the other is simply showing up to check off the list). Like many other drivers (or at least I suspect), I barely cracked the owner’s manual (this was studied Talmudically in my father’s era) when I bought the car, and certainly didn’t spend much time under the hood because, quite simply, I wouldn’t have understood much of what I was looking at (nor, for the record, do I take apart the MacBook). One still sees articles in the AAA magazines and the like with “driving checklists,” a tally of things you should do before setting out, but I would guess that very few of us do this, for a very simple reason: It has become an article of faith that the car will perform. This contrasts with the situation when I drove used American cars of 1970s vintage as a teenager, during which I experienced all kind of random breakdowns, faulty gas gauges, blinking ‘check engine’ lights that seemed to come on, as if by a law, late at night far from an open service station.

It’s hard to quantify, but I imagine this sense of the machine’s infallibility has changed the way we operate it. It is known that average speeds and following distances changed over time on certain highways, causing engineers to rework their models, and one of the reasons given is, inevitability: Superior handling and performance of the modern car. In this respect, all the coverage given to Toyota is a good thing — if it serves as a reminder of the risks of the road. If it merely shifts further focus away from driver behavior and onto a large, litigable car-maker, this won’t mean much in the overall picture of traffic safety.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 8th, 2010 at 12:07 pm and is filed under Cars, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

12 Responses to “Recall Problems”

  1. Andrew L Says:

    Excellent post.

    The study of risk perception is instructive here: Risks seem to loom larger in our imagination when they are novel, and when they are seemingly out of our control, among a host of other factors.

    You should have made the connection to the fear of terrorism, or inoculations, other similar complete misunderstanding of risk by the general public.

    P.S. I am finally reading your excellent book.

  2. Andy Says:

    Great statistics. It is silly that people freak out about car recalls when their safety could be much more improved by changing their habits.

    I have to wonder how much of the reports are false or embellished too. I have a feeling that manufacturing problems are thrown into crash reports in hopes of taking some blame off the driver, and eventually after a few people report the same issue it morphs into a phony manufacturers problem. Of the articles I read about brakes not working properly, they pointed out that it was often after hitting a pothole or on ice. Of course you can’t expect brakes to work 100% in those cases. Instead of just driving safely, when they hit less than ideal surfaces that their infallible car couldn’t handle, they want to blame someone else.

  3. Bob P. Says:

    I know someone who missed a day of work because they took their car to a dealership to be checked. The “check tire pressure” light was on, and tehy couldn’t figure out what to do.

  4. John Says:

    Driver ability will always be paramount, hence my blog, which you should give some press to, Tom.

  5. gpsman Says:

    Tom: Forgive me; NEVER, ever, EVER, EVER link to AOL.


    It just isn’t done.

    Hypocritically posted via Time-Warner.

  6. Tony Toews Says:

    Hold on a sec. What about this article in comp.risks showing a total failure in how to design a familiar system to turn off the vehicle.

  7. Pete Says:

    Anybody commenting here actually been behind the wheel of a runaway vehicle? I have. Years ago, the throttle on my ’72 Chevy half-ton froze wide open. The truck took off like a bullet. Fortunately, the truck was “primitive” enough that all I had to do was turn off the ignition. I was going about 75 down a country road when I got the engine stopped. The resulting loss of power steering and power brakes made steering onto the soft gravel shoulder and stopping a little more exciting than I would have liked.

    This experience leads me to question the logic of your assertion that improving my driving safety generally ought to make me indifferent to mechanical defects in my vehicle that target my safety specifically.

    Or do you intend to be an apologist for Toyota?

  8. wes kirkman Says:

    Pete, I can’t help but point out you were going 75 on a rural–sure, I’ll give you that–road. Kind of zippy there, don’t you think? Especially when compared with Mr. Evans’ statement that changing your speed from 52 to 50 increases your chances of survival in a wreck 15%.

    However, you are sort of getting to a point: the frequency of runaway vehicles is so tiny that, I bet, most have not experienced it. Yet, that is the point of this entry. Despite the infrequency and resulting small fraction of deaths, there is the hysteria going on. I even remember driver’s ed making a big deal about this, while not even paying lip service to watching for pedestrians, how to act when bicyclists are in the road, etc.

  9. Don Says:


    Since you mentioned it, I’m not going to worry that much about going off topic on this site.

    I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to see Mac computers get their comeuppance in the near future, especially in regards to their safety against viruses/worms/trojans.

    As evident by Shane Macaulay’s win last year at a hacker’s convention, and a multitude of other tech articles, Mac are inherently a lot easier to hack than Window’s PCs.

    The reason that we don’t see many infected Macs is because Macs have traditionally held a small market share. This makes it unprofitable for virus makers to work on hacks to turn Macs into spambots, or to infect a sizeable enough number of Macs for the purposes of stealing personal information.

    However, with the Mac market share increasing I can definitely see the day coming where some Mac users are going to have a startling wake up.

  10. Don Says:

    Devil’s Advocate here, because unless I’m missing something, I think Leonard and Tom (and probably others) are missing somethings.

    1 – Regarding the incident with the California cop and the 911 call. Take the 911 call out of the equation. Question what information may or may not be recovered from the “little black box” in cars that save the past 5 seconds of data when air bags deploy.

    I see a situation where it would, could, and very likely end up being a situation where we would be talking about a careless and self-empowered off-duty cop who decided that laws didn’t apply to him. He went way too fast and lost control.

    2 – Another reason why I think Leonard and Tom are way off base is that are now more than a number of media articles and videos coming out with people claiming that this accelerator problem occured or started while the vehicle was at a stop, coming to a stop, or just coming from a stop. Kind of throws that whole slow down and drive more safely diatribe above out the window, no?

    And as far as the brakes will hold the car bit, that has been challenged in a number of those same videos and articles. As a former mechanic, I can tell you that A LOT of people drive around with beyond worn out brakes. I really don’t believe that some cars, especially with large V6 engines will be held back with worn out brakes. New brakes probably so, but not worn out.

  11. froggyprager Says:

    I agree with your points here and think this provides an appropriate perspective. You have more articulately said what I tried to say on my blog:

    I had not thought about it but I agree that it is probably good for the Toyota recall to be in the news because as you said, “if it serves as a reminder of the risks of the road” even if the coverage is overly nuts regarding a specific part that may fail and lead to an accident.

    Part of the problem I have with the coverage of this story is that it seems neither the regulators or Toyota really have a clear understanding of how often this happened, how many accidents were really a result of this problem, etc. Despite all the coverage, we don’t really know how these accidents occurred and if this really caused the problems. There needs to be more focus on the real causes of accidents in the media.

  12. Pete Says:

    I’m the guy who wrote comment 7 above. In belated response to the writer of comment 8, I see that my original comment may have been ambiguous. Here’s the thing. I was going about 45 (a safe and reasonable speed) on this country road when the throttle stuck wide open. The truck rocketed up to 75 before I could get the engine stopped. This all happened VERY quickly.

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