Bad drivers are more dangerous than recalled Toyotas.

How we get from here to there.
Feb. 16 2010 6:52 PM

Do Recalls Really Make Us Safer?

Bad drivers are far more dangerous than bum Toyotas.

Also in Slate, Farhad Manjoo says we shouldn't be worried that computer software controls our cars.

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The coverage is easy to explain. Whereas previous auto recalls have often involved smaller brands, or relatively minor mechanical faults, this recall involved the world's largest car manufacturer (one for which recalls were relatively rare), and the defect was life-threatening.

In the case of this particular recall, media coverage has presumably been a good thing—both putting pressure on the manufacturer and alerting drivers. Curiously, that last bit is often not so easy. As research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found, previous recalls have generated response rates of anywhere from 34 percent to 60 percent. Communications researcher Dirk Gibson has found that response rates vary by type—68 percent of people bring their cars in to be fixed when the vehicles is the problem, but only 51 percent do when the fault lies with accessory equipment. Tire recalls garnered a mere 28 percent response rate.

It is unclear to what extent media coverage helps drive response rates. Recall expert Nicholas Rupp, looking at the Wall Street Journal over a two-decade period, found that most recalls received no coverage (in the 1980s NHTSA discontinued its practice of issuing a press release for each recall); another study found that 72 percent of drivers responded to recalls because of official notifications. On the other hand, Rupp has found that the more recalls were reported by the media (the Wall Street Journal, in this study), the higher the repair rate. It could simply be that more severe recalls generate both a higher response rate and more media coverage. 

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While many studies have looked at the impact of recalls on stock prices or a company's public perception, there has been little research examining the link between recalls and safety. A paper by economists Hugo Benitez-Silva and Yong-Kyun Bae analyzed crash and recall data for 20 vehicle models and concluded: "The higher the correction rates of a recall, the lower the number of accidents of that year model in the three years following the recall." As Kevin M. McDonald has pointed out, however, other factors might be in play: Perhaps people drive differently after a recall, or perhaps they drive less (as their car ages or they feel less confident in it).

A more elusive question is what effect the coverage of recalls might have on the people who do not drive the vehicles in question. First, there is the issue of our faith in the modern vehicle. Even as recalls are more common now than they used to be, cars have become longer lived and cheaper to maintain, in part, ironically, because of the lean production techniques championed by Toyota. As a result, we may be overly confident in our cars. Improved braking and handling have led to higher average speeds (at least on noncongested roads). New technologies like "active noise cancellation" help reduce cabin noise—which might reduce stress but also lower a driver's "situational awareness," or his sense of what's happening around him. (Quieter cars breed higher speeds.) If the Toyota coverage served, however unintentionally, to remind drivers of their own mortality in even the "safest" of modern cars, we might expect a sort of safety halo effect from the recalls.

But a more worrisome result is that the Toyota controversy, and its attendant publicity, will skew perceptions of where the real road risk lies: With the person behind the wheel. The risk psychologist Paul Slovic has identified a number of conditions that amplify our perception of risk, among them things that are novel, things that are in clusters, or cases when our exposure is involuntary or out of our control. Unintentional acceleration certainly punches these buttons. But these perceptions of risk are out of whack: Consider, for example, that even if many more fatal cases of unintentional acceleration come to light, the toll would scarcely begin to match the number of people killed every year in "backover" accidents in parking lots and driveways.

If past recalls are any guide, Toyota will gradually regain consumer confidence. The defect—and the litigation that will greet it—should lead to a design fix, making the car that much safer. But a safer car does not ensure a safer driver.

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Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.