Do recalls really make us safer?

Recent news accounts are awash with evidence that cars are killers: cars suddenly accelerate out of control, careen through signalised intersections, weave across lanes with fatal consequences, spin wildly into people's houses, and cannot stop in time to avoid killing (non-jaywalking) pedestrians. What went wrong with the car in each of these cases? The driver, says Slate, a US website covering national news..

The recent coverage of the Toyota recall 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 computerised, 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, says Slate.

Leonard Evans, a former GM engineer and traffic safety authority, notes that 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 analysing 1999-2008 fatality data from US 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 behaviour.

    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, says Slate.

    If past recalls are any guide, Toyota will gradually regain consumer confidence. The defect – and the litigation that will greet it – should lead to a design fix, making the car that much safer. But a safer car does not ensure a safer driver, says Slate.

    Source: Tom Vanderbilt, Do Recalls Really Make Us Safer? Slate, February 16, 2010.

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    First published by the National Center for Policy Analysis, Dallas & Washington, USA

    FMF Policy Bulletin/ 23 February 2010

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