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).