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.