(Feb. 4) – The bad
news for Toyota continues to grow. On top of the recall of 4.5 million
vehicles, the company Wednesday admitted to a design problem in its
2010 Prius brakes.
So what's a Toyota owner to do?
"Stop driving it" was the immediate advice (later retracted)
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had to offer.
But the broader question we should be asking is, why is this such a
Consider: 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
analyzing 1999-2008 fatality data from 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
Even the claim that the 19 deaths were "linked" to the
defect in no way implies that it was the main factor.
Seventy years of scientific research has shown
that what drivers do behind the wheel is the dominant factor in
traffic deaths. Speed, for example, is a critical factor in safety. An
almost imperceptible reduction in speed from 52 mph to 50 mph cuts the
risk of being killed by 15 percent. That's more than the risk
reduction from airbags.
So if the prospect of a sticky gas pedal alarms you, just slow down a
little. The result will be that you are safer with the defect than you
were without it.
Even in a car with faulty gas pedals, driving with a prudent safety
margin should provide enough time to handle the effect of the gas
pedal sticking. But if you are driving at the edge, then any departure
from what you expect can lead to disaster.
If you do not own a Toyota, the recall should be of little personal
interest to you. The chances that your vehicle will be hit by a Toyota
speeding out of control because of a stuck gas pedal is about the same
as being hit by lightning.
On the other hand, how many drivers do you see threatening your life
by talking on cell phones instead of looking where they are going?
Driver distraction and other unsafe driving practices are what the
transportation secretary should be addressing.
In a typical day, 100 people are killed on our roads – more than
419,000 have died in traffic crashes over the past decade.
We know how to cut this death toll in half. Indeed, many countries,
including Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, have already cut
their highway death tolls by far more than half.
These countries didn't achieve this success by focusing on safety
inspections and recalls. They did it by focusing their efforts on
rules, regulations and, most importantly, public information that
meaningfully changed driver behavior in line with scientific evidence.
Our overemphasis on vehicle defects amounts to public disinformation.
Of course, the sticky gas pedal story is important. Of course, the
vehicles ought to be fixed. And, of course, Toyota ought to have egg
on its face.
But if we spend all our time focusing on relatively unimportant safety
factors like sticky gas pedals, we won't have the energy left to focus
on the No. 1 factor.
Traffic safety is overwhelmingly about drivers, not vehicles.
Leonard Evans is an internationally recognized traffic safety
expert who spent 33 years with General Motors Research Laboratories
and is the author of "Traffic Safety."
Evans' previous op-ed for AOL News was "Auto
Technology That Kills."
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