Bad drivers are more dangerous than recalled Toyotas.

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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.

Have you heard about the operational crisis in the modern car? Recent news accounts are awash with evidence: cars that suddenly accelerate out of control, that careen through signalized intersections, weave across lanes with fatal consequences, spin wildly into people's houses, and cannot stop in time to avoid killing (nonjaywalking) pedestrians.

What went wrong with the car in each of these cases? The driver. The recent coverage of the Toyota recall—which has occasioned any number of Do you feel safe driving your Toyota? polls—hints that the single greatest source of danger on the road has become the car itself. The reports have prompted some suggestions that the modern car is too computerized, too complicated. But the reality is that "vehicle factors"—which is how researchers generally classify mechanical malfunctions when assigning crash causality—cause an extremely small number of crashes in this country, coming in well below the leading categories of driver and highway factors. (Injury-reduction professionals, I should note, would rarely cite a single factor in determining the cause of a crash, preferring a matrix approach that examines how the various factors intermingle. An icy road or a speeding driver or faulty steering in and of themselves do not guarantee a crash or an injury, but each of those factors may come into play.)

This GAO report, for example, found that in a sample of more than 700,000 crashes, "a specific vehicle-related failure might have contributed to the crash" in only 2 percent of cases. And a "vehicle-related failure" need not implicate the manufacturer: Worn brakes or bald tires that the driver should have long ago replaced can also be coded as a "vehicle factor." On the flip side, crash reporting is notoriously inexact. As one crash investigator explained when I asked him about "vehicle factors": "[A]n experienced cop will know that if he checks that box, he is likely going to get some nasty cross examination in court regarding his ability, or lack of ability to determine if a part is defective or not. Would you check that box if you knew an OEM [or 'original equipment manufacturer'] lawyer would likely be cross-examining you if you check that box?"

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But as Leonard Evans, a former GM engineer and traffic safety authority, notes, any loss of life that may have resulted from Toyota's now infamous mechanical deficiencies should be considered in a broader context:

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.

In other words, intentional acceleration is a far bigger problem than unintentional acceleration. Unfortunately, it is far easier to regulate and recall faulty vehicles than faulty drivers. In the United States, for example, it seems virtually impossible for the even the most wantonly reckless driver to lose his driving privileges. One Illinois study identified 160 drivers on the road statewide with five DUI convictions on record. Study newspaper coverage of crashes, and the passive voice—and a tendency to avoid directly implicating a driver—dominates. A minor semantic point, perhaps, but studies suggest the passive voice can reduce a person's perception of perpetrator blame in a crime. 

I don't mean to absolve Toyota or any other auto manufacturer of their duty to make safe cars. After all, carmakers have tried to shirk responsibility before (as in the notorious Ford Pinto case, or when problems arose with the Audi 5000), often showing resistance in the face of clear hazards. In a broader sense, historically, manufacturers have often implied that it is more important to "fix the nut behind the wheel" than introduce costly safety improvements to vehicles; they've resisted everything from safety glass to nonflammable interiors to collapsible steering columns, and such improvements are often put in place only after litigation. "This company is run by salesmen not engineers," as one Ford engineer put it. "The priority is styling, not safety."      

And while safety for interior occupants has increased dramatically in recent decades, you could still argue that the majority of cars on the road today leave the factory with safety defects built into them: An ability to go well beyond the legal speed limit on any U.S. public road, for one; or, in many cases, car designs that increase the chances of pedestrian fatalities. (By contrast, all cars sold in the European Union will by 2015 have to comply with comparatively stringent standards for mitigating pedestrian injury set by the European Enhanced Safety Vehicle Committee.)

But even though bum drivers cause more fatalities than bum cars, the Toyota recall still raises a number of interesting questions: Why has there been so much coverage? Do auto recalls actually improve car safety? And is there a broader effect, either positive or negative, on traffic safety in society at large?

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