The Wrong Kind of Toyotathon

The unintended consequences of an unintended acceleration panic.

Tales of runaway cars have a long history. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducted its first study of sudden acceleration in 1978. By 1987 it was investigating sudden acceleration in more than 10 million vehicles, including models made by Ford, GM, Chrysler, Nissan, Toyota, Honda, Volvo, and Audi. The Center for Auto Safety, a Naderite group closely associated with plaintiffs’ attorneys, claimed sudden acceleration had resulted in more than 2,000 accidents, at least 650 injuries, and 23 fatalities among the car models under investigation.

Twenty-five years ago, fears of sudden acceleration focused on the Audi 5000. At the time, most experts concluded that the drivers were mistakenly pushing the accelerator when they thought they were applying the brakes. Not surprisingly, pushing an accelerator accelerates a car. But in November 1986, 60 Minutes featured a mom who had run over her kid in her Audi. To illustrate the Audi menace, the CBS program showed an Audi—which had been rigged with a hidden canister of compressed air—lurching out of control. By 1989 Audi was a plaintiff in 120 sudden acceleration lawsuits claiming damages totaling to $5 billion.

In January of that year, the Canadian government issued a report attributing sudden acceleration to “driver error.” Two months later, a NHTSA report blamed “pedal misapplication,” a euphemism for driver error. CBS asserted that it did not need to correct its reporting, dismissing the NHTSA report as “an opinion.” The Audi episode spurred most automakers to install brake transmission interlock devices, which require drivers to step on the brake when shifting gears out of park. Reports of unintended acceleration declined shortly thereafter, bolstering the contention that most incidents involved driver mistakes.

Now we have out-of-control Toyotas. The NHTSA has received reports linking 52 deaths and 38 injuries since 2000 to sudden unintended acceleration of Toyota vehicles. Last fall the company recalled millions of cars to reconfigure their gas pedals to prevent them from being trapped beneath floor mats. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood further stoked public anxiety when he testified at a congressional hearing in February, “My advice is, if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it, take it to the Toyota dealer because they believe they have the fix for it.” LaHood quickly withdrew his remark, saying that he had “obviously misspoken” and that he merely meant to tell Toyota owners to get their automobiles fixed as soon as possible.

Then, on March 8, a California driver named James Sikes claimed that he drove his Toyota Prius for 34 miles as it accelerated to more than 90 miles per hour despite his attempts to brake it. A media firestorm erupted, but a week later neither federal investigators nor Toyota technicians have been able to reproduce what Sikes claims happened. An independent check by the automotive website Edmunds.com found that applying the brakes or putting the car in neutral will bring a Prius to a halt. Casting further doubt on Sikes’ account, an onboard self-diagnostic system revealed that the brakes and the accelerator on his Prius had been pumped alternately 250 times during the alleged runaway event.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume all the other reported cases of sudden acceleration are for real, as opposed to being cobbled together by greedy drivers and unscrupulous plaintiffs’ lawyers. In that case, how dangerous is it to drive a Toyota?

Last year highway fatalities in the United States fell to 33,963, the lowest number of traffic deaths since 1954. Taking the number of miles traveled into account, the 2009 traffic fatality rate is the lowest ever, at 1.16 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Still, an average of 93 people died in traffic accidents per day in the U.S. last year. Assuming 52 people really have died in Toyota sudden acceleration events during the last decade, that would amount to 0.015 persons killed per day. Thus the 2009 daily rate of traffic deaths was 6,200 times higher than deaths from sudden acceleration incidents. 

Another way to roughly calculate the risk of dying in a sudden acceleration incident is to divide the number of automobiles on American roads (250 million) by the number of fatalities. It turns out that one in every 7,300 cars and trucks was involved in a fatal accident last year. In contrast, 6 million Toyotas were recalled. If there is an average of 5 deaths annually from sudden acceleration, that suggests that roughly 1 in 1.2 million Toyotas were involved in a fatal sudden acceleration accident last year. 

Meanwhile, 20 people per day die from taking nonsteroidal anti- inflammatory drugs such as aspirin, mostly to manage the symptoms of arthritis. In other words, you are 1,300 times more likely to die from taking aspirin than from a sudden acceleration accident.

Given the tiny odds of being killed in a sudden acceleration incident, the costs of addressing the alleged problem have been hugely disproportionate. Toyota estimates the accelerator repairs will cost $1.1 billion, meaning the company is spending more than $21 million per alleged sudden acceleration fatality. The National Safety Council, a nonprofit that focuses on preventing injuries, calculates that the average economic cost of motor vehicle fatalities is $1.3 million. Even using a measure that includes quality-of-life variables and people’s willingness to pay to reduce their health and safety risks, the total cost adds up to $4.2 million per motor vehicle death. And that figure doesn’t include the millions or billions more Toyota will end up paying once the trial lawyers get finished. To get a sense of the safety tradeoffs involved in spending $1.1 billion to prevent sudden acceleration events, consider enhanced seat belt reminder systems. Such systems chime every 30 seconds for five minutes to remind drivers and passengers to buckle up. Using cost figures from a 2007 Dutch study, a rough estimate suggests it would have cost $1.4 billion ($140 per car) to equip the 10 million vehicles sold in the U.S. last year with the system. Studies show that enhanced seat belt reminders annoy people enough to increase their seat belt use by 5 percent. A 2002 NHTSA study estimates that each percent increase in seat belt use saves 250 lives per year, so a 5 percent increase would save something like 1,250 lives per year, compared to the five lives per year saved by preventing Toyota sudden acceleration events.

The upshot: Seatbelt reminders cost about $1.1 million per life saved. Efforts to prevent sudden acceleration cost $220 million per life saved.

Safety panics mislead regulators and consumers about safety priorities. If you’re worried about dying on the road, do yourself a favor and buckle up. It will reduce your risk of fatal injury by about 50 percent, according to NHTSA—whether it’s caused by intentional acceleration, unintentional acceleration, or “pedal misapplication.” 

Ronald Bailey (rbailey@reason.com) is reason's science correspondent and the author of Liberation Biology (Prometheus).

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    I'll need to get up to speed on this.

  • Uh huh||

    You should accelerate your knowledge of the subject.

  • marlok||

    It's time for me to put my foot down:
    No more of this runaway thread.

  • ||

    Toyota is getting a bum rap here. Their cars are not suddenly racing out of control while drivers mash the brake pedal to the floor.

    It is simply driver error. Look around the next trip you take in a car. What percentage of the other drivers are competent?

  • ||

    Don't check the mirror.

    ;P

  • Amakudari||

    According some studies, though, 93% of American drivers are above-average compared to other Americans.

    http://bit.ly/b7oIXc

    Now we can all feel safe.

  • BakedPenguin||

    The sad thing is, compared to other countries, Americans are better drivers.

    While it's not as bad in most of Europe, ask anyone who has been to Eqypt, India, or Russia.

  • Brett L||

    Life is cheaper there, and people more fatalistic. If it's the taxi driver's time to die by making a left into oncoming traffic, that's your fate, too.

    Speaking of strange driving habits, in Costa Rica, anything painted on the road or posted on a sign was a suggestion, but they were excellent about obeying the traffic lights.

  • ||

    I'd point out that while I get the point of what you are saying, its completely possible that 93% of Americans are above-average drivers - if they are all just slightly above average, and a large chunk of that 7% are really, truly bad drivers. I think 7% or 10% is about the right percentage of "really bad drivers," so this is actually totally believable.

    I think you are conflating "average" with "median." No way could 93% of drivers be above-median drivers.

  • MrGuy||

    Key to off position -- problem solved.

  • Joshua||

    many newer cars don't have a keyhole. They use RFID tech to detect that you have the key, then allow you to use push button to start.

    Some people proceed to NOT RTFM, and thus don't know that you must hold down the start button for 3 seconds to shut down the car while in drive.

  • Lord Humongous||

    The government is just trying to make their wards (GM and Chrysler) look good by trashing their main competitor. Of course, since the government is doing it, they're failing.

  • ¢||

    For the sake of argument, let’s assume all the other reported cases of sudden acceleration are for real

    No.

    "Sudden acceleration" is white people's version of the Third World's perennial penis-shrinking sorcerer and organ-thieving Jew stories.

    "For the sake of argument, let's assume the Kochtopus is chewing off your balls."

  • ||

    the Third World's perennial penis-shrinking sorcerer

    That TSA dude should have tried that one.

  • Evil Red Scandi||

    PJ O'Rourke had a rather insightful comment on the subject during the Audi "crisis" back in the 80s - that this was occurring when a group of (mostly older) drivers was making a sudden transition to foreign cars (German in that case, Japanese in this one), which tend to have the pedals closer together than American cars do. With the sudden trendiness of the Prius among older and more gullible drivers, this is almost certainly either a major factor or the total problem in a nutshell.

  • Parker||

    I've seen similar calculations - one that seemed to show you were many times more likely to die from the risk of driving to the dealership to get the fix, than from the purported fault itself.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    Even if a car was having an actual runaway acceleration incident, why couldn't the driver simply turn off the ignition switch?

  • ||

    With the Prius, the emergency off is to hold the start button for three seconds. Not very intuitive.

  • kinnath||

    Gotta love engineers ;-)

  • Jimbo 238||

    Engineers would use a knife switch. This is the sort of thing that comes from 'user interface designers'-- The sort of people who deeply and earestly believe that it's innovative to think about how people 'really use' door knobs.

    The engineers just get stuck implementing such foolishness.

  • ||

    Yeah, I wonder if Toyota's engineers drinked a little bit too much sake or they hired GM's beancounters? ;-)

    I guess it's too simple for them to put an emergency button to press in case of emergency, lol.

  • ||

    All the more reason to fuck the priapus and drive a suburban.

  • monkey spanker||

    "With the Prius, the emergency off is to hold the start button for three seconds."

    Just like the MS Windows operating system!

  • ||

    Because they're stupid. Putting the car in neutral and pulling over is too complicated for them.

  • kinnath||

    In Driver's Ed back in the dark ages, they taught us to make an emergency stop with the "parking brake" and the car in neutral -- with and without the power steering working.

    It ain't that freakin' hard to do.

  • West Texas Boy||

    Most people don't have to take driver's ed anymore, but since most of these accidents involve old people, that's probably not relevant.

  • ||

    I recall hearing a news report about one of the first Prius incidents. The driver called 911 and was advised to shift into neutral. The driver told dispatch that he had complied, but was still accelerating. A later analysis of the black box revealed that he hadn't done so, and later admitted to being afraid that the car would flip over had he done this (dumbass!). Anyone else remember this, have links, anything?

  • ||

    Because people don't always think clearly in a crisis about something they didn't anticipate or practice.

    I had a close call from a floor pedal riding up and sticking the gas pedal. If that were to happen again, I'd now calmly try one or more of three things, any of which would work: put in neutral, turn off engine, or mash down on brakes as hard as possible.

  • ||

    Really, we need computer-controlled cars sooner rather than later.

  • ||

    I would love to have a computer-controlled car, especially when I'm driving through the Rockies. I could just watch the scenery and let the robot do the driving.

  • ||

    Just hoping that suicidal impulses do not develop in such AI applications.

  • Brett L||

    You've used computers before, right?

  • Bill Melater||

    Hal, open the door.

  • ||

    Yes, computers are great for safety.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoL5NkIuIPU

  • ||

    I know this is not likely to meet much assent around here, but it seems to me that the Prius acceleration cases fall into three large groups.

    1) Outright fraud. There is very good reason to believe the James Sikes case falls in this category (the car's computer is the Clue here).

    2) Failure to RTFM. Steve Wozniak's issues fell into this category, and were also a hoax.

    3) Legitimate software bugs, which appear to be not merely attached to the Prius, and are probably nigh-well impossible to replicate.

  • West Texas Boy||

    The computer and Sikes's "colorful" past pretty much discredited that story in just a few days.

    Man at Wheel of 'Out-of-Control' Prius Has Troubled Financial Past

  • Mark||

    Arguing that electronic controls or 'software bugs' might be causing unintended acceleration problems with Toyota (or other manufacturers') automobiles is an argument from ignorance. No one knows what is causing uncommanded acceleration problems. There seems to be a correlation between the numbers of reported incidents and vehicles with electronic controls, but as any scientist will tell you, correlation does not equal causation. The NHTSA has not pointed specifically at electronic controls as the problem, ignorant reporters in the media have.

    The argument goes like this:

    "We don't know exactly what's causing unintended acceleration. Data seems to indicate some newer cars with 'new' electronic control systems experience unintended acceleration more frequently. Since no one except the engineers who designed them know how they actually work, the problem must be caused by the new electronic control systems."

    The NHTSA (and ALL automobile manufacturers who use them, imagine that!) have been studying electronic controls -- specifically dangerous failure modes -- for YEARS. Toyota's recent travails have sparked a feverish uptick in the efforts along those lines.

    Given the fact the news media (not to mention the busy bodies in our government who love to protect us) would LOVE to find a definitive problem with electronic controls, none has yet been found.

    Go figure...

  • ||

    Really, we need computer-controlled cars sooner rather than later.

    What would help is voice activation; general incoherent screaming at a level above some predetermined decibel reading should trigger a shutdown.

  • ||

    Which would be awesome at stopping that tailgating metalhead.

  • Steve Nash Equilibrium||

    One of the benefits of driving a standard. Just drop down a gear or two, take your foot of the gas, and watch the douche behind you shit himself.

  • BakedPenguin||

    I think Warty knows computer programming; he'd probably figure out a hack.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Speaking of metal (sort of), that picture looks like a Krokus album cover.

  • Stretchy||

    I don't think you get it. This was on the news a lot so, it's obviously the most important and most dangerous thing in the world. I need the government to keep me safe from everything!

  • ||

    By 1989 Audi was a plaintiff in 120 sudden acceleration lawsuits claiming damages totaling to $5 billion.

    Don't you mean "defendant"? Or was Audi suing all of its accusers for defamation?

  • Uncle Joe||

    One fatal car accident is a tragedy. A thousand fatal car accidents is a statistic.

  • ||

    The brake pedal and accelerator on new cars are located in closer proximity than they were in old cars. I have found myself inadvertently stepping on the right hand side of the brake pedal and simultaneously nudging the accelerator. This, I believe, is the major factor in nearly all of these claims of "spontaneous" accelerations. I haven't heard of any investigation into this possibility for the claims.

  • ||

    I don't believe that sudden acceleration incidents occur except when a driver inadvertently hits the cruise control's resume speed button. A tap of the brake stops the sudden acceleration. (I've done this a few times myself, but I never was at risk of an accident.)

    Stuck accelerator incidents can occur without driver error. I had one myself in a used car back in my college days. I lived in the snow belt region of upstate NY, which means that tons of salt were applied to the roads in winter. Corrosion damaged the floorboard area around the gas pedal, and rust and debris made the pedal stick. I hit the brakes, put the car in neutral, pulled over, turned off the car, cleaned under the pedal as best as I could, pumped the pedal a few times to make sure it didn't stick again, and carefully drove the car a few miles to my uncle's service station. The brakes on that used car were able to slow it despite a stuck accelerator. My belief is that every stuck accelerator accident is avoidable if the driver reacts properly.

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  • lamp||

    This article lists several studies and press releases but doesn't provide a link to any of them.

    Not that I disagree with the article, but I'd like to be able to check out what study says 20 people die a day from aspirin (again, not that I doubt it). It's so easy to cite sources, yet no one ever wants to do it.

  • ||

    Runaway healthcare will kill millions more people than Toyota.

  • ebay trade||

    life is precious, safely drive,just think about your family.

  • ebay trade||

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  • Jim||

    I was disappointed Ron didn't mention the other unintended consequence - that NHTSA is revving up to issue new regulations requiring software fixes to allow for brake override and to add black boxes with mandatory specified recording times that will add an estimated $1500 to the cost of a new car. The reasoning for the black box is to document what exactly happens in a crash (could be a good thing for automakers wrongly accused of faulty electronics) but the extended recording time (60 seconds before to up to 15 seconds after a crash) is being pushed by NHTSA to study roll overs, which has NOTHING TO DO WITH UNINTENDED ACCELERATION. Yes, no crisis is ever wasted in Washington - the one area they excell in efficiency.

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