Tales of runaway cars have a long history. The first sudden acceleration study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was done in 1978 and the agency had conducted more than 100 investigations involving 20 manufacturers by 1990. By the mid-1980s, the NHTSA, prodded by the Naderite Center for Auto Safety, was looking into a couple of thousand sudden acceleration incidents. A Nexis search finds that by 1987, NHSTA was reportedly investigating sudden acceleration in over 10 million vehicles involving models from Ford, GM, Chrysler, Nissan, Toyota, Honda, Volvo, and Audi. The Center for Auto Safety—which is closely associated with plaintiffs' attorneys—claimed that 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, sudden acceleration fears 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, the CBS television program 60 Minutes featured a mom who had run over her kid in her Audi. To illustrate the Audi menace, the CBS program also showed an Audi—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 amounting to $5 billion. Finally, in 1989, the Canadian government issued a report blaming the sudden acceleration on "driver error." Two months later, a NHTSA report found the cause to be "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 subsequently spurred most automakers to install brake transmission interlock devices which require that brakes be depressed when shifting gears out of park, forcing drivers to focus on depressing the brake. Reports of unintended acceleration declined shortly thereafter, bolstering the contention that most incidents involved driver error.
And now we have out-of-control Toyotas. NHTSA has received reports linking 52 deaths and 38 injuries since 2000 to sudden unintended acceleration of Toyota vehicles. Last fall, Toyota recalled millions of cars to fix their gas pedals. Department of 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 he had "obviously misspoken" and what he was trying to say was that Toyota owners should get their automobiles fixed as soon as possible.
Then last week, Californian James Sikes claimed that he drove his Prius for 34 miles as it accelerated to more than 90 miles per hour despite trying 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 had happened. An independent check by the automotive publication Edmunds.com also found that applying the brakes or putting the car in neutral will bring a Prius to a halt. Further doubt has been cast on Sikes' account after an onboard self-diagnostic system revealed that the brakes and the accelerator on his Prius had been alternately pumped 250 times during the alleged runaway event.
For the sake of argument, let's assume that the reported cases of sudden acceleration are for real and not being cobbled together by greedy drivers and unscrupulous plaintiffs' lawyers seeking jackpots from playing civil jury roulette. How dangerous is driving a Toyota? First, consider that last year highway fatalities in the U.S. fell to 33,963, which is 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 100,000,000 vehicle miles traveled. Nevertheless, this means that on average 93 people per day died in traffic accidents in the U.S. last year. Assuming that 52 people really have died in Toyota sudden acceleration events over the past decade that would net out to 0.015 people killed per day. Thus the 2009 daily rate of traffic deaths was 6,200 times higher than deaths from sudden acceleration incidents. To get a sense of the risks we run, the daily traffic death rate also compares to the 20 people per day who die from taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin, mostly to manage the symptoms of arthritis. In other words, you are 1,300 times more likely to die from taking aspirin or other NSAID than from a sudden acceleration accident.
And what about the cost? Toyota estimates that the accelerator recall repairs will cost $1.1 billion. This means that Toyota is spending over $21 million per alleged sudden acceleration fatality. The National Safety Council calculates that the average economic cost of motor vehicle fatalities is $1.3 million per death. 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 who knows how many millions or billions more Toyota will end up paying once the trial lawyers get finished?
To get a sense of the safety trade-offs 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. A rough estimate is that it would have cost $1.4 billion ($140 a piece) to equip the 10 million vehicles sold last year with the system. Studies show that enhanced seat belt reminders annoy people enough such that they increase their seat belt usage by 5 percent. Each percent increase in seat belt usage is estimated to save 250 lives per year, so an overall 5 percent increase would save an estimated 1,250 lives compared to five lives per year saved by preventing Toyota sudden acceleration events.
Safety panics can and do mislead regulators and consumers about real safety priorities. Bottom line: Do yourself a favor, buckle up—it will greatly improve your chances of surviving an automobile accident, whether it's caused by intentional acceleration, unintentional acceleration, or "pedal misapplication."
Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books.