Safe Toyotas, and Other Surprises

Driving is a hazardous activity, but that's rarely because of unsafe cars.

Last week, facing a congressional committee acutely dissatisfied with his company's safety record, the head of Toyota, Akio Toyoda, was asked what he would tell President Barack Obama if he had the chance. His surprising reply: "Toyota cars are safe."

It was surprising because more than 8 million Toyotas have been recalled for safety flaws that have caused dozens of deaths. It was even more surprising because he was right.

No one denies that these defects have caused some horrifying accidents that were preventable. Still, worrying that you are going to be killed while driving a Toyota that suddenly zooms out of control on the road is like worrying that you are going to die of a spider bite while climbing a ladder onto your roof. Though either is possible, the chief dangers are the ones you take for granted. Driving is a hazardous activity, but rarely because of unsafe cars.

During the last decade, the sudden acceleration of Toyota vehicles has been blamed for 34 fatalities. In that same period, more than 21,000 other people died in accidents while riding in Toyotas. Your own lapses, and those of other drivers, are far riskier than the flaws found in your automobile.

Chuck Hurley, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, agrees on the pressing need for Toyota to repair its troubled cars. But he estimates that more than 80 percent of traffic deaths are the result of excessive speed, drunken driving, or unused seat belts. Last year alone, more than 11,000 Americans died in accidents involving drunk drivers. By contrast, only about 2 percent of wrecks stem from vehicle defects.

Yet Congress is not holding hearings to ask Toyoda why his company sells cars that can travel well above the speed limit, with engines that start even if the operator is too drunk to spell "key." It would rather worry about freakish risks inflicted on us than common ones within the control of individual motorists.

The current sentiment on Capitol Hill is that carmakers cannot be trusted with our well-being and therefore stern government action is in order. In fact, safety is a big selling point in the auto marketplace—which happens to be one reason Toyota has sold so many cars.

No vehicle is flawless, and a vehicle that accelerates for no reason poses an unacceptable danger. But there's no reason to single out Toyota for congressional histrionics. In the latest analysis of driver fatality rates in different vehicles by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Toyota vehicles do not turn out to be the four-wheeled caskets Congress imagines. In fact, they consistently rank better than average.

The Matrix, for example, has the best record among station wagons, with a death rate less than half of that of the worst vehicle in its class. The 4Runner and Highlander finished first and second among midsize SUVs. The popular Camry and Corolla get high marks for crash-worthiness.

When it comes to defects, the company is hardly unique. Over the past five years, The Wall Street Journal reports, the federal government got more complaints from owners of Fords than owners of Toyotas. Out of 20 carmakers, says Edmunds.com, Toyota is fourth best in the number of complaints per vehicle sold. But none of the others is being used as a piñata.

A more expansive government role is one of those answers that is neat, simple, and wrong. "There are 250 million vehicles with 3,000 parts apiece," says Hurley. It's safe to assume the government couldn't police them all, even if it chose to do nothing else.

Fortunately, it doesn't have to do that in order for consumers to be protected. A carmaker's need to attract buyers is a far more powerful force for safety. As Yoshimi Inaba, head of North American operations, told Congress, "Nothing costs Toyota more than the loss of customer trust in our vehicles." Another reliable motivator is the urgent desire not to pay millions of dollars in damages, as Toyota is likely to do once the courts have had their say.

So it is likely to make its vehicles safer than before—which doesn't mean your morning commute will necessarily be less fraught with peril. Angry members of Congress would like to blame highway carnage on self-interested auto executives. They forget that as a rule, cars don't kill people. Drivers do.

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  • Soonerliberty||

    Of course, the token leftist will say, "Well, yeah, they're safe . . . but because of regulation." You see when someone dies from a defective car, it's not defective regulation at work. It's greed and corruption, and we need to regulate more. If no one dies, then it must be as a result of heady regulation.

    Alas, it's a vicious cycle . . .

  • Soonerliberty||

    Oh, and I can't wait till a defective "green" car kills someone. The leftist's head will explode.

  • ||

    "Leftist exploding head" is an interesting cause of death. How do we accelerate this phenomenon?

  • Soonerliberty||

    1. Privatize markets
    2. Make the leftist follow his own rules

    However, I'm concerned that once one leftist's head explodes, there will be a congressional hearing and regulation will follow. Perhaps, we can regulate the safety of heads, requiring more explosion proof craniums before birth.

  • Coloneol_Angus||

    Feed leftist rice and/or alka-seltzer.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    God dammit, that's Colonel_Angus.

  • DADIODADDY||

    wrong question, it's "How do we legislate this?"

  • DADIODADDY||

    clearly leftists should not be allowed to operate heads or have heads that operate

  • prolefeed||

    I can assure you that defective green cars have already resulted in multiple automotive deaths. It's a statistical certainty.

    That getting publicity from a lefty MSM? Not such a certainty.

    This is the first article I've seen anywhere thoughtfully putting the safety risks of Toyotas in context.

    Good job, Steve C.!

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    Didn't this whole thing start because of defective Priuses (Priusi?)? That's a green car.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    What could be greener than removing people from being?

  • Brett Knoss||

    Didn't the Prius have a recall for brakes.

  • consp||

    Yes, the government involvement wasn't necessary because "A carmaker's need to attract buyers is a far more powerful force for safety," but in this case, the owners of one company needed to push customers away from their foreign competitors. A part-government ownership is sure handy.

  • Kyle Jordan Prime||

    Yep.

  • TheOtherSomeGuy||

    The only reason Toyota is in this position is because the Federal Government now owns GM and Chrysler and wants to bump off their competition.

    K.I.S.S. - Toyota's emergence spelled the end for GM, and the government is now trying to protect its "investment".

    If I were Ford, I would be dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's. The G-Men will be after you next...

  • BakedPenguin||

    Ford has the same grany-train UAW contracts that GM and Chrysler do. since the Obama admin is basically kissing their ass, Ford doesn't have to worry.

    Hyundai and Kia, on the other hand...

  • prolefeed||

    Ford does have to worry, since the government essentially owns their domestic competitors, and that sets up an incentive to benefit GM and Chrysler sales at the expense of the sales of Ford and Toyota and Honda and ...

  • ||

    Exactly the opposite... If Obama is kissing UAW's ass (to which we all agree) then Ford will be put under the union screw whenever UAW sees fit, and there will be no recourse.

    I'm counting Ford's days.

  • BakedPenguin||

    gravy train. As we all know, older voters favored McCain...

  • ||

    I totally agree with you... I also believe that Toyota executives did not spend much money lobbying Congress.

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    Boy, you are in your own world. Toyota has spent tens if not hundreds of millions influencing our politicians and our regulative bodies. You dont have to be a lefty to recognize political corruption.

  • Part-owner of GM||

    Toyota has spent a lot on lobbying Congress, but only about half of what our taxes helped to pay for in GM's share of lobbying Congress. The idea of paying taxes to fund a corporation to pay for its lobbying efforts is nauseating.

  • TP||

    They forget that as a rule, cars don't kill people. Drivers do.

    Sorry, but I'm not buying that line. Drivers do not control their cars any longer. Computers do. Computers are only as smart as the people who program them. And anybody who has used a Windows OS knows computers are not infallible. I'll take a pair of Carters on top of tunnel ram intake any day over a computer controlled multi-port injection system. Hell, I'd take a two-barrel Rochester on a dual plane intake. Sure, rebuilding a carb is a pain in the ass, but at least I have control over the fuel intake system. Same with the ignition.

    Even transmissions are computer controlled. I was having problems on my 2000 Chevy Van, and I asked the mechanic if he could just bypass the neutral safety switch. He said "no, it's all computer controlled now". I had to replace the entire circuit board. Not cheap. I was actually considering dropping a Turbo 350 trans in it just to be rid of that computer shit.

  • Mark||

    Yeah, it's a good thing we can still do things without computers -- like posting comments on a blog...

  • Highway||

    It's a good thing those mechanical throttle cables never got stuck...

    oh, wait...

  • dave b.||

    If your throttle cable sticks, just press the pedal to the left of the brake.

  • TP||

    My 63 Riviera didn't even have a throttle cable. It was all linkages.

  • dave||

    Drivers do not control their cars any longer. Computers do.

    Drive-by-wire is nothing new; airplanes have had fly-by-wire for ages. We still see any number of aircraft, both civilian and military, augur in for reasons unrelated to the computer. In fact, it's common enough that we have a name for it: CFIT, controlled flight into terrain.

    Your next sentence is accidentally correct: computers are only as smart as the people who program them. In most cases it's not the software programming, but the input programming (i.e. the driver), that leads to disaster. You can't blame the computer if it does exactly what the driver tells it to do.

  • TP||

    In the case of the unintended acceleration of Toyotas, it IS a case of bad programming, at least some preliminary independent testing shows that this may be true. You can blame the computer if the fail safe isn't programmed to kick in when false signals are received.

  • TP||

    Perhaps it better to say that - when a fail-safe isn't programmed to "recognize" false signals.

  • TP||

    It is also not accurate to compare airplane computer systems to autos. After how many flight hours is an aircraft fully inspected? Autos?

  • prolefeed||

    TP -- cars are much safer now on average than they were in the bad old days. Computers in cars is an ADVANCE that overall makes them safer and more efficient.

  • TP||

    You got me on the safety part. Anti-lock brakes have saved my ass a few times.

    But I'm not all that convinced on the efficiency part. An ECM's first priority is to control emissions. You understand how that can effect efficiency? And what efficiency are we talking about? MPG? Not a true measure of (fuel energy:horsepower) conversion. Technically, efficiency is defined by (energy out / energy in = a %). Manufacturers do not provide those specs.

  • ||

    Sorry, but I'm not buying that line. Drivers do not control their cars any longer. Computers do.

    That is the most ignorant comment this week (don't worry there's five more days for someone to post something even more clueless).

  • TP||

    Really? When you step on the accelerator, just exactly do you think you are doing? All you are doing is changing a set of voltages that are being sent to an electronic control module via a sensor. The ECM changes the fuel flow into the throttle body, not you. Sensors have been know to "fail" or send false signals. In that case, it is not you who is controlling the car, it is a faulty sensor.

    You should really be careful about who you call "clueless", when it is you who has no clue.

  • ||

    I'll take a pair of Carters on top of tunnel ram intake any day over a computer controlled multi-port injection system.

    Jesus Christ do you hate the planet or what! Are you Al Gore or something? Does TP stand for "taken presidency"?

    (I've always wanted a tunnel ram too. Don't tell anyone)

  • RedBeardRum||

    Are you actually comparing a computer that is designed to to one thing to a Windows OS? A lot of windows problems are user generated, not unlike car problems.

  • TP||

    You've never used Vista? OK, comparing an ECM or TCM (throttle control module) to a Windows OS is a stretch. It was tongue in cheek. But "bugs" have been known to cause all sorts of problems in computer systems. You are familiar with how the term "computer bug" came to be? Exactly what happens when you get a bug in a computer that is in control of the amount of fuel being sent to the engine in your car?

  • ||

    one of the most interesting experiences one can have is driving or being driven in another culture. I drove in Italy and I thought Italian drivers were crazy anarchists. Then I was driven in Addis Ababa and I thought that was worse. Then I was driven in Cairo and I realized that Italian drivers were like careful old ladies. Very enlightening and amusing, especially since I survived all the driving. My driver in Addis Ababa told me that accidents and fatal accidents were frequent. The whole time we were riding, he complained bitterly about the stupidity of other drivers who did not give signals, who stopped without warning, who made illegal turns, and who went too fast. I asked him why that was so and why he was not like that. Because I am sane he told me. The rest of these people are crazy.

  • Almanian||

    I liked the cab driver in Scotland. We asked him, "We didn't want to drive since we're not here long and everything's reversed from home. Do you get many Yanks driving over here?" "Yeah - we call them 'head-on collisions.'" Funny guy :)

  • DADIODADDY||

    Head-ons don't bother the Scots so much since they don't use theirs very often

  • UAW||

    This article is Un-American. They terk ar jerbs!

  • Aging Liberal Hippy Douche||

    If you can't carpool to work in a Prius, then you should find a new jerb closer to home. Then you can ride to work on your bicycle while dreaming of rainbows and unicorn farts.

  • Jim||

    I drove by the UAW local for the Hydromatic plant in Ypsilanti, MI the other day and their sign out front was imploring Toyota to hire union workers. Yes, I'm sure hiring high cost union labor with restrictive work rules and a 'not my job' mentality will help Toyota solve their engineering problems...

  • ||

    Well they clearly need to do something about it. PLain and simple.

    Jess
    www.total-anonymity.cz.tc

  • billy-jay||

    Chuck Hurley is a funny name for a mother.

  • ||

    MTE

  • thenino85||

    Quoting MADD? Really? *Really?*

  • DADIODADDY||

    ADD = Dyslexics Against Drugs

  • DADIODADDY||

    ADD = Dyslexics Against Drugs

  • DADIODADDY||

    crap my OCD just kicked in...

  • ||

    more than 8 million Toyotas have been recalled for safety flaws that have caused dozens of deaths.

    [citation needed]

    It is hard to impossible to show with any degree of confidence that "unintended acceleration" is not due to driver error.

    I do think Toyota made a pretty serious mistake when it decided to focus on being the world's biggest carmaker, but I'm having a really, really hard time taking seriously anything asserted by people suffering from serious conflicts of interest on the safety of Toyota cars.

  • Jim||

    One of the stats I saw from NHTSA was that since Toyota switched to 'by wire' throttle control the number of UAIs (unintended acceleration incidents) shot up by 400%. That would seem to indicate an electronics problem. That said I am sure a big chunk of the rush to judgement is a) they are the biggest car company and as we all know the biggest company in any field becomes the fall guy for the entire industry, and b) US government's involvement (financial interest in) the US car industry.

  • prolefeed||

    more than 8 million Toyotas have been recalled for safety flaws that have allegedly caused dozens of deaths.

    Fixed.

  • ||

    Even still, I find it funny that there's panic over DOZENS of deaths being caused by over 8 million cars. Oh noes.

  • ||

    Damn! The vending machine's stuck... Maybe if I just tip it back a little...

  • ||

    To be fair, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety was the first to notice the increasing number of people claiming "sudden acceleration" in Toyotas and they reported this to Toyota and to the NHTSA back in 2002.
    Toyota chose to do nothing about it.

    Yes, there have been only 34 deaths, but there have been hundreds of non-fatal accidents claiming "sudden acceleration".

    I agree that the danger is overblown, but so is the conspiracy theory that "it's all Government Motors trying to eliminate competition".

  • ||

    Toyota chose to do nothing about it.

    [citation needed]

    My understanding is that Toyota has been investigating these claims for quite some time, and has been unable to replicate the problem.

  • DADIODADDY||

    they should use stupider drivers...

  • Matt||

    It was reported back in '02? Well, checking the recall list, the earliest model to be affected by the recall is the '04 Prius. Why the disconnect?

  • ||

    I would hardly call denying the problem "doing nothing".

  • ||

    I'm not sure how serious these flaws are, but I'm highly dubious about claims that they've killed "dozens." Plenty of attorneys are out there trying to make their first billion on this, and the bereaved--who want a reason for what happened--are easy pickings.

  • ||

    Was Toyota being callously irresponsible addressing these engineering shortcomings? It's possible.

    Is the government holding the Japanese owned, non-unionized automaker that is their largest competitor in the auto biz to a unfairly high standard? It's even more possible.

  • UAW||

    Why do you hate America?

  • Almanian||

    Working for a competitor, I take no joy in what's happening to Toyota. Been there - no fun.

    Mr. Chapman's money line: "During the last decade, the sudden acceleration of Toyota vehicles has been blamed for 34 fatalities. In that same period, more than 21,000 other people died in accidents while riding in Toyotas. Your own lapses, and those of other drivers, are far riskier than the flaws found in your automobile."

    Ayup.

    If there is some glitch, it needs to be fixed. But interesting that people rarely focus on the fact that they're much more likely - by orders of magnitude - to be killed by Aunt Flo running a red light while applying her makeup than by a stuck accelerator or other vehicle defect.

  • Jim||

    I second that (I also work for another car company). I can guarantee you every car company is looking into this right now, to make sure their own houses are in order. The loss of consumer confidence is a lot bigger cost than the recalls themselves.

    I do think the magnitude of this is partially due to some of what Toyota does right- common designs used across all platforms. This helps keep cost down and should be easier to police from a quality standpoint, but when you have a problem, it's huge because it affects almost everything you build.

  • Zenmaster||

    So, how much did Akio pay for this article to be written? I have enough to worry about on the road like "Aunt Flo running a red light while applying her makeup" to add my car coming to life, a la "Maximum Overdrive" and killing me too. I do agree that the Gov't is taking advantage of it's power to to support it's vested interests in the matter. Toyota's rep has suffered, and the company has much work to do to restore it's image, congressional prying or not.

  • The Wine Commonsewer (TWC)||

    My grandfather ran the safe driving program in a large city back in the day. Even in those primitive cars with mechanical brakes and no seat belts the accident rate caused by mechanical failure was less than 1%.

  • ||

    Toyotas are unsafe for the following reasons:

    1. Toyota's USA plants are non-union
    2. The feds own ~60% of GM
    3. The feds gave the UAW ~17%, shafting the senion bondholders
    4. The UAW spends millions of dollars to support Democrats

    Questions?

  • ||

    There's a difference between saying Toyota is faultless, the government is making it all up and saying that Toyota has a problem and the government is not letting a crisis go to waste.

  • Kroneborge||

    great article, except the comments about drunk drivers. almost seemed to be advocating cars that won't start without a sobreity test.

  • Zenmaster||

    You must be drunk!

  • e||

    "Driving is a hazardous activity, but that's rarely because of unsafe cars."


    No kidding - 40,000 deaths in 2008 - a new record!

    If only there was some way of structuring communities so that people don't have to drive everywhere...nah, that's socialism, forget it!

  • e||

    sorry, I meant 43,000+.

  • ||

    Why not just lock people in their homes? Wouldn't that be safer still?

  • e||

    You are right Prolefeed, there's only those 2 alternatives!

  • ||

    Granted, we could lock them up in giant government-controlled camps, made totally safe by inspectors.

  • e||

    I hope you guys aren't big gummint bureaucrats who favor laws about which side of the road to drive on.

  • ||

    I thought we were banning driving?

  • prolefeed||

    If only there was some way for individuals to make choices about whether they want to work right next to their jobs, or take the low risk of getting killed while commuting in order to enjoy a less urban and less expensive house and thus a better lifestyle ...

    Oh, right, that already exists. It's called cost-benefit analysis, and people do it all the time, whether they realize that's what they're doing or not.

  • e||

    Prolefeed, only individuals can perform CBA, of course. If a democracy votes to do it as a collective, and raise revenue through taxes to do it, it's socialism and bad.

  • ||

    Of course, that makes sense if we were some giant collective species. The Khmer Rouge applied a cost-benefit analysis and collectively decided that a million or so had to die. Less draconian examples exist, too, of course, but the justification for allowing government to make decisions in place of the individual allows just about any outcome.

    You're also totally ignoring the corruption of government decision-making, which is a major reason why we should never allow the government to perform more than a handful of well-defined functions.

  • John||

    F-you Steve. This happened to my mom in 2005. Try talking your sh*t when someone from your family is effected

  • John||

    btw, how much is Toyota paying you to be their mouthpiece?

  • abercrombie milano||

    I like that saying, thanks!
    Thanks for posting this. Very nice recap of some of the key points in my talk. I hope you and your readers find it useful! Thanks again

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